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and Embodiment
and Embodiment
New Essays on Second-Order Systems Theory
Duh Univorsity Press' D",ham & u m d ~ n • ~     9
e ,009 Duke Uni, .... >ity !'r ...
AU rights «",rwd
!'rinted in the United SUt ..
of A"""ic. on . dd-f,« 1"1"" M
o.. ign«l by Amy Ruth Buch,,,,,,n
Trr<"" in Minion by
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I. st p,inteci p.ig' of this booO..
Ark".,,,,!rdgmnm •  
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Inltrvi<w with Htinz \"on
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Hdnl \'On F.,.. .. tu ' .lkmons: Tbr Erm'rgtnct
ofS«ond·Ordrr Sy:mm, Thro'1
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Th. Early Da)'$ of Aut
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!.ift Mind: From lo
Ncu rophrnonltllology
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llc)'Ooo Aut"!"';"';': lllfl«tion. of Em«grnct
and I'olili.a in F .... ncisco "ard.
101111 'IOllYl • 9-1
S)'$lrm·En\'ironmrm Hybrids
  ••. II. HAnu • llJ
Sflf·O'ganit.tion .nd Autopoi .. i •
•   •
Sp.Krls lht PIau: Lt .... of Forn,
and Social Systrn"
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lmprOV;j.;l!ion, Form and
A Spc'n.u· Brownian CalculaTion
lUDGUI • 179
Communkation vuj.u, Communion
in MO(i(rn      
Luhmann, and CogniTin
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  E' ..... t.Machi .... ,or Sysl(1TU
lloeory and of
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llVIN'$TON • >46
Bibliography' J61
COrlrribur()f'J • 179
/rulu • >31
The groundwork for Ihis volume wa, a..,1 of conference pand, Bruce darke
organize<! for the third internalional meeting of the Sociely for Lilerature, Sci -
mce, and the Am, hdd June 2004 in Pari" France, The pandisls for "Neocy-
bernetic Emergence I and JI" we .. Bru .. Clarke, Sh'-Yen Meyer, Mark Hansen,
Eric While, Edgar Landgraf, and Cary Wolfe,
W. would like 10 Ihank all the participants in this volume for Iheir con-
tributions. W. are happy to acknowledge Thomas von Foerster for his kind
appro ... J of the text of the interview with Heinz von Foerster and Amand. Heider for her pennission to republish images create<! by Gordon Pa,k
for '-on Foerster', "On Self-Organizing Systems and Their En.'ironment>." We
are gratdul to Carl -Auer-Spteme Verlag for ptrmiss;on III publish a trami-
lated excerpt of Einfohrung i" ai, SyM.wl/t,crk, by NikJa, Luhmann, and to
AmyCohen-Varda and John Riley and Sons, Lid., for permission to republish
Francisco J. Varda's mellloir, "The Early Da)'. of AUiopoiesi., " originally pub-
lished in Sysl""" R,,,,,,,c/t.
It has been a plea>ure to work with Reynolds Smith and the staff at Duke
Uniyersit)' Press. Finally, we would like to .cknowledge the assistancr and
support of Y"es Abrioux, Barbara Herrnstein-Smith, Timothy lenoir, Lynn
l\brguli., Robert Markley, Albert Muller, Manllela ROMini, and William Irwin
Neocybrmetic Emergence
tn his introduction to Obserdng Syslc,m, "The AgfS of Heinz yon Foerster,"
fim published in 1981, Francisco Varela concluded with a charaneriz.l1ion of
"the laS! age of Heinz."' In the chronology of second-order cybernelics, thi'
would be considered its fim age, the period during the earl)' 1970' when ,-on
Foerster laid out hi' ground-breaking sketches of, in Varela', words, "recu"i"e
mechanisms in c<>gniliYe systems," thereby producing the initial formulations
for a m e t i   s of cybernetics,' \Vhat ,truck \' arela in the early 1980, wa, the
extent to which Ihe force of von Foerstd. mgniti"e innovations had not yfl
gained secure foothold, in the mainstream academy, had" nol permeated our
intellectual preferencfS and current thinking":
There i, liule doubtth,t our current model .. about cognition, the ne,,"Ous
'ystem, and artificial intelligence are severely dominated by the notion that
information i. represented from an out-there into an in-here, processed,
and an output produced. There is still vinually no challenge 10 the ,'iew of
objectivity understood as the condition of independence of descriplions,
ralher than a circle of mutual elucidation. Further, Ihere is lillie accepTance
yfl thaI the key idea 10 mah Ihese points of view scientific programmes is
the operalional closure of cognizing 'ysTem., living or OIherwise. These are
preci .. ly the leitl11oli,'" of Heinz', lasl stage. J
Since Varela made this observalion, Ihere has cenainl), been some significant,
if modeS!, penflration of Ihese fundamental mgnili"" mOTif, into the "intel -
lectual preference, of Ihinh" across Ihe 'I,.,ctrum of natural, mathematical,
and discu .. iYe disciplines. As we ",. iI , howel-", Varela' , word, 'till ring lrue
of our pr.sent lime, and 10 lhe extent Ihat the)' do, Ihis mlume of essays h.,
imponant work to do. For il is only b), Iheorizing Ihe operational clo,ure of
cognizing systems that cult ural Iheory can rescue agency---allwil agen'}" of
a far more complex "ariety than that of traditional humanism--from being
overrun by the technoscientific p,oces", that are evel)where transforming the
material world in which we live today. Indeed, given the aneleration in t" h-
noscient ific dewlopment since the H)-Sos----acceieration that has witnes.sed the
ad,'ent of artificial life, complexity theory, and other t" hnoscienc .. of emer-
gence-the imperative to theorize the operational closure of cognizing systems
has. arguably. neyer been more urgent , Better late than never. "cond-order
cybernetics can perhaps now final ly come through on its promi" to prD>ide
the ecology of mind best fitted to the demands of our int ellectual, institutional.
and global crises.
from C V b ~   n .. t ics to Neocyb<>rnetiu
The cultural history of cybernetics is still being written. There is no authorita-
tive version but rather a swarm of competing accounts. Giwn the welter of
disciplines engJged in the mowment, as well .. the self-reAexive turn in cy-
bernetic thought il" lf, a definiti"e history would be an impos.sible proj"t. As
has often been told. howeyer, the first cybernet ics emerged in the ''NOS as a
technoscienc. of communication and control. drawing from mathematical
physics, neurophysiology. information technology. and s)mbolic logic. Histori-
cally concurrent with the postwar spread of linguistic structuralism in Europe,
cybernetic, was set forward in the United States and then vigorously trans-
planted to Soviet and European subcultures. From a base conn"ting biological
and computational systems by way of information theory and communica-
tions technology. cybernetics was academically mainstreamed under the names
Anificial Intelligence (AI ) and, more broadly, computer science in the sen'ice
of command-and-control systems. But due to the long interdisciplinary roster
of Warren McCulloch's in>it""s to the Macy Conferences----includi ng Law-
rence Frank. Heinrich Klilver, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, and Lawrence
Kubie-----<ybernetic discourse entered Jl'lychology, anthropology, and other so-
cial sciences and from there, in the 19,OS and '60s. the humanities and the
ereative am.
Coined by original "'ocy participant Norbert W;'ner. "cybernetics" in its
initial formulation was the ' studyof messages, and in panicular of the effectiw
me..."g .. of control.·' But for Wiener q-berneties also raised new issues aboul
the -definition of man": [f"human behayiors" can be duplicated by machines.
how is one to "differentiate man" from other entiti .. !' K .... ping the focus on
information and communication but extending it beyond machines. Wiener
argue<llhal among li" ing b"ings only "man" is ob>essiwly driwn to commu-
this was nOi in fact a satisfactory criterion of distinction b"tween
human and living and nonhing Ihi ngs. it did show that from the
slart.   PUI ontology of "humanity" into queslion.
Lr .. than a decade lat.r. W. Ro .. Ashby d.flected Wi.ner·, on hu-
man communication and control loward the ontological neutrality of daud.
Shannon' s informalion thwry.' ln a similar "oin. Gregory Bate,;on wrote of the
fim cybernelic< thai its matler" extended across traditional disciplin-
ary registers in focusing on "the propositional or informalional aSp<'<t of the
e"ents and ob;.as in the natural world."' Now we would say thai cybernetic
methodologi. s draw out the "irlUality correlated wilh actuality. but dearly
Ihe shift in emphasis from the actual to Ihe virlUal was already under way in
first · order cybernetics. According 10 Ashby, wit h regard to the sub,taner of the
mrdia com''1''ing informatic form,. "the materiality is irrelevant ." Cybernetics
marks a shift away from the building blocks of ph.nomena---..o long the focus
of chemistry and physic, and, given the succe .. ofth.,., di .. iplines, too often a
model for biology and psycholog)"--{o the form of behaviors, what things do
and how th.y are ob",,·e<I.
The first · order q-brrneti c demotion of material .. lative 10 in ·
fOrmali( patlern is momorably recorde<l in The HI"""" U" of Hlmwn &j"gs.
when Wiener rehearsed a Ieleporter ",enario that characteristically operated
on a bia>ed form/substance binary' -rhe individuality of the body is that of
a name rather than that of a stone. is that of a form rath .. than that of a bit
of sub,tance. "" Nevertheless, the teleportation of that form for purpost of
rematerialization at a di>!ance would almost surely im'ol\'e at le",t Ih. momen-
tary drstru<,tion of the organic b"ing undergoi ng the process. One ",,'ic. of
the sci.nce fictions retailed as Th. Fly has b"en to restore Ihe "isceral horror
of a that Wiener d.scrib"d wilh a remarkably bloodless and surgical
Any scanni ng of the human organism mml b" a probe going through all
parts, and mmt ha,'e a greater or less tendency to destroy the tissue on il>
way. To hold an org,mism stable while part of it is b"ing slowlydestroye<l,
with the intention of .. <"eating it out of other material elsewh .... invoh'"
a lowering of its degree of 3ctivit)', which in most ca ... we should consider
to prevent life in the li"ue. In other words. the fact that we cannot telegraph
the pattern of a man from one place to another is probably due to technical
difficulties. and in particular. to the difficulty of keeping an organism in
being during such a radical recon.truction. It is not due to any impossibility
oftheid ... "
One could gen.ralizr from Wi.ner and Ashby-as well as from much of i15
popular offspring in cyberpunk and other technoid fanta,i.s-that first · order
cybernetics remains inscribed within da"ical sc;"ntific thought : it hold, onto
humanist and idealist duali.m. that de"ribe the world in term. of an e<jui"ocal
dialectic. of maner and form, of sub.tance and pallern, in which the immaterial
wrest. agency away from the emOOdied.
On. way to mark the emergence of neocybernetics (our preferred paraphrase
of "second-order cybern.tics" or "the cybernetics of cybernetic.") i. to empha-
size its new questioning and e"entual overcoming of cla .. ical ",bsunce/form
distinction •. Neocybernetic ,y.tems theory radicalizes the constructi,·i.t episte-
mology in"ribed within the first cybernetics by .hifting to an autological rather
than ontological theory of form. In neocybernet ic theory. the form/substance
dichotomy is   u ~ r s e d e d by the distinction between form and NlrdiuIII.
Putting form and medium theory together, neocybernetics goes beyond das-
sical ontology'. impaSS<'--i, it form, or i, it maner. nothing, ore\"e'}1hing1---be-
fore the o"illation, of being and non being. Such imponderables have alway.
presupposed some ultimate fundament upon which 10 e"aluate this all ·or-
not h i ng con u nd rum. N oocybe meti( epi replies by "de-on 1 ulogizing"
the questiun. Neither furm nur medium reach .. bonum: the .. i, nu bonum.
Form. are temporary fixations of element. within a medium, and wheu enough
like furm. coalesce. they become anmher ",edium for a new, emergent set of
forms. As Edgar Landgraf disco"es below in the context of imprO\'isational
performances, thi' autological dynamic i. especially decisive in the social com·
munication ofart form •. In "Th. Medium of An." KikJa. Luhmann writes: "In
the case of art ... form fi rst constitutes the medium in which it exp"'''''' itself.
Form i, then. ' higher me<lium: a ""ond-degree medium which i, able to u ••
th. difference between lTIfdium and form itself in a medial fa.hion a, a medium
of communication."" Building upon this understanding, Michael Schiltz in this
"olume draws out the implications for Luhmann' , theory of po.iting ","'M-
ing a. the lTIfdium within which p'y,hic and social form. interpenetrate: "If
the medium of meaning i, inde.d the ultimate medium of psychic and social
s)"5tems-i .•. , if meaning i, ' the medium of it,elf ' - then what i, it. 'form: the
distinction through which it can be expr ..... d?1 perceive only one answer: the
medium of meaning must be idemical to the difference between form and
medium. and the reentrr of that distinction into itself. Its consequent indrcid-
ability i, the 'rmbol of our dealing with tne world. "
FirsT-order cybernetics undersco .. d the provisional nature or Ihe
of cognitions within obsen'ing systems, but il did so by undercutting
the .ignificance and contribution of   environments 10 the
cognilive .ystem, that emerge within them, The sTrong constructivism of nw-
cybernetic system. thwry deal, with the world by promoting a new lewl of
al1e"tion to the media of its forms or, more concrelely, to the rnvironm"",.nd
the embo</;m",t, of syslem., As Bruer Clarke's essay demonstrates, we see this
f<ological con\'ergence of constructivism and cybernetic "environmentali.m"
in the key figure responsible for Ihe turn from first - to second-order 'y'tems
theory, Heinz ,'on Foerster, Althe beginning of hi' 1974 es&1y'On Constructing
a Reality." von Foerster, then dire<:tor of the Biological Comput er Laboratory
at the University of Illinois. rf<ounted how, 'perhaps ten or fifteen )'ear' ago,
some of my American friends came running to me with the delight and amaze-
ment of having just made a great discoyery: ' I am living in an Environmentll
haw always lived in an Enyironment! I ha,'elived in an Environment through-
out my whole life!' "" Yet despite the ecological re\'elation of their newfound
Environment, according to \'on Foerster, hi' fri end, had yet to make another
and e\'en more crucial discoyery: «When we percei," our environment, it i,
we who invent it .""
Thi. coUection contribute, to Ihe cultural work of cybernetic discourse by
tracing the lines of neocybernetic development that extend di=tly from the
wo,kofHeinzvon Foerster, Putting von Foerster at the head of
throw. attention on what is still a minorit y account of cybernetics' intellectual
accomplishment and cuitural.ignificance, Neocybern<tics' greatest interest for
telClual disciplines, media studies, and the """ial scienc .. , we argue, deriv .. from
panicular .. upon first -order cybernetic, in Ihe biologicaJ, cognitiw, and
social theories d,-'eloped in the work of \'on Foerster and Gregory Bale-
son and extendtd from there by Henri Atlan, Humbeno Maturana, Francisco
Varela, Lynn Margulis. Susan Oyama, and Niklas Luhmann,"
Some of the most important theoretical and (ritical conversation, going
on tada), in the cogniti,'e sciences, chaos and complexity studies, and """ial
systems theory stem from neocyberneti( notions of self-organization, emer-
gence, and autopoiesi., A growing body of .. holarly work is rethinking the
shapt and eyolution of the relations among science, technology, sociology,
psychology, philosophy, history, literature, and Ihe .rt. through neocyber-
netic terms, Expanding the initial trdnsciisciplinary framework connffting the
natural and human scien(es with information technologies, re<:ent thinkees,
such as Michel Serres, Gill .. Deleuze, Felix Guattari, Donna Haraw.)', Bruno
Latour. and Isabelle Stenge", have deplo)'td neocybernetic discourse extensively
6 aRue( CLUK( AN!) "'-ARK 8. H. HAHS(N
and transformatively. N<"OCybernetic discourse is c.ntral to current historical.
interpreti"e, and theoretical im,.,tigation, u,ing concepts such as narrati"",
medium, assemblage. information, noi .. , network, and communication to
remap the terrain of knowledge with referene. 10 the operational boundaries
of systems and their environments.
Thi, body of work is both inspi .. d and admonished by the larger unfolding
of cybernetics, its institutional ups and down, . its cultural impacis and re-
si,tan",., it' cul,-de-sac, and il> continuing intell"tual and social promi..,.
N<"OCyhernctic concepts in the line from \'on Foerster io Maturana, Varela,
and Luhmann challenge not just the t" hnoid rigid iti .. of A' and fi rst -ord ..
n,.chanical and ""'ial s)"tem, engin..,ri ng. but also, and more profoundly,
the epi,temological foundation> of philosophical humani,m as such. Wheth ..
technical or biOlk, psychic or social. s)"umsare bounded .. mi-autonomous en-
tiii .. coupled wi.I, their environments and tooth .. r 'ystems. One shift, attention
from isolated elements and .. lation, to the em .. rgent I>.ha"io" of ,,'er-lars ..
en .. mbles. Neocyb<rnetic 'ysiems theory , tres .. , the r"ursive complexities of
ob.>en:ation, mediation. and communication. What'""" comes to I>. (ob.>e,.wd)
ow .. il> term ofl>.ing to system, wit hin its environment. Autonomy can n",'er
bt- solitary: in second-order rylx-rnetic,., .utonomy i, rethought a, operational
self- reference.
In brief. neocybernetics shifts the emphasis of obse]";ation and description
from subj"t to 'ystem. One form of the neocybernet ic turn i, a shift of interest
from the identiti .. of ,ubjf<ts to the network.> of connf<tion, among sy' tem,
and en,·ironment,. The humani't project that unified perception and com-
munic.tion in one subjf<t , shored up agai nst aU odd, by the first cybernetics, is
now observed as an amalgamation or structural coupling of multiple observing
')"tem •. With this mo\'e the noumenal unity of the humanist .ubject gives way
to a differential observation of the relation. ofli\'ing and nonliving system. and
their environments, such a. human and nonhuman bodies and "",ie!i ...
Emergence and Embo./immtreAf<ts on tM legacy and continued. even renewed,
nlue of neocyhe rnetk. in. world characterized by hypeTJcceleration in the
sciences and tf<hnologiesof emergence. In IV. H m" Nn>er &m MOIlm" Bruno
Latour states that "we are going to have to slow down. reorient and regulate
the proliferation of monsters by representing t heir offieially." " In
MimK"'N"", Lynn Marguli, and Dorion Sagan sound a similar note regarding
humanity at large in it. geobiological context: "The reality .nd re,urrence of
symbiosis in evolution suggest, that we are still in an inv.,i,'e, 'parasitic' stage
and we must ,low down. share, and reunite oursd"", with other if we
arr to achieve evolutionary longevity. "" Summarizing thi' bro.d neocyber-
netic ron .. nsus, Dirk Baecker write. that "One of the most important as(lfft'
of systems theoretical thinking is to proc",d slowly. to look at things .gain.
and to take the time to spell them out .... We .hould not jump. a. system,
do, from one ",'ent to the nnt simply to ,how that we can do .... Rather, we
should look back at each instance, again as sy'tems do, to s.,. how we effected
the last jump.""
Following the .. complementary invocations for a ',Iowingdown" oftfCh-
noscientific hybrid" of fCological depredations, and of systems-theoretical
theorizati ons, we acknowledge a similar need for a slowing down---in our ca.o;e
of e .... rything that has rfCently come together under the rubric of the "post-
hu man"- for the purpo'" of careful neocy!lernetic consideration." By now
already a cultural diche lacking definitional consensus, the po,thuman has !leen
wielded to encompass   from contemporary throrizing and cutting-
Mge cultural history; to work in nontraditionalscien<:es like nonlinear dynam-
ics, robotics, arti ficiallif.; and ind",d to the ",ienee of emergence that has ],...,n
dubbed (by il5 most ambitious proponent. Stephen Wolfram) "a new kind of
science." By mean. of a p." formative polarization deploying dassic binary logic,
bcile versions of posthumani,m reproduce the human a, the very "other" - the
much despi .. d and easi ly criticized figure of" unified and fully autonomous
human subjtct- whose de\'alorization i, to give them t"'th.
As we "" it, the human has always !leen a for-it,d! complexly imbricated
with the environment, and it i, precisely a rfCognition of thi' complexity that
inform' the historic.1 moment of cy!lernetics, as well as its con-
tinuation in what we arr call ing neocybernetics. Central to the priority we
want to daim for neocybernetics i, the concept of autonomy as double dosur.
or, as Heinz \'on Foerster puts it, the regulation of regulation. [n stark contra-
dist inction to any nai,'e conception of autonomy as the absolute ",[f-sufficiency
of a substant i.1 ,ubjfCt, this concept demarcat'" the paradoxical re.lity that
environment.l entanglement correlate' with organismic (or systemic) .. If-
regulation. Thus a system is open to il5 environment in proportion to the com-
p[exity of it. dosure.
That thi' equation remains in force even_nd ind...,.j mmt remain in force
"'(lffially- in the race oftoday'. massive incursions oft"hnic, into the domain
of the living i, one of the <:entra[ burdens of our ,·o[um •. For if the human has
8 !Rue( CLARK( AND ' .... RK 8. N. HANS(M
always been posthuman in the sense that it has alway, involwd an ext.rioriza·
t;on Dr "'olution by means other than life (ao the work of Andr' l.eroi-Gourhan
and. more recently. Bernard Stiegler ha, , hown), the m.assive contemporary ac-
  in processe, of posthumani7.ation poses the pro'pect of a qualitatiw
shift in the economy between autonomy and environmental entanglement."
Wheth .. thi' ,hift entail, the abandonment of a utonomy as regulation of reg·
ulation is. crucial question facing cultural theorists today.
One eloquent position here-that of Katherine Hal'le, in My Mother \Vas a
Co"'put<"l"--<ontends that r",ent technosciences of emergence and the model
of the computational uni,·"se they presuppose h.,'e definiti,."ly marked the
historical limits. indeed the ",Iipse, of the qbernetic tradition:
EYen the most in'ightful and reflective of the cyberneticians stopped short of
seeing that reflexi"ity could do more than turn back on itself to cre.te auto-
poietic '}"Stems that continuall y produce and reproduce their organization.
Hein, "on Foerster"s cla"ic work Obwn-ing SyMcm, show, him coming to
the threshold of a crucial insight and yet not quite gra'ping it: the real ization
that refl exivity could i>e<:ome a 'piral rather than a cirde. resulting in dy-
namic hi erarchies of emergent behaviors. By the time scienti'ts began to use
thi' idea as the b.,i, for new kind, of technologies., cybernetics had already
lost it, utopian glo,s, and new field, would go by the nanll'S of 3Mificiallife.
complexity theory, and cellul ar automata.'"
As we see it, however, thi' e",luation seriously underestimates the force of von
Foerster's account of how ,ecursive processe5 generate emergent complexity.
At the core of Hayles', claim i, a con"i,tion that the role of recursion ao under-
5tood by second-order cybernetic5 simply cannot account for the proce,ses of
emergence that are popping up "'erywhere in our world, whether one consults
the computational model d"'eloped by Stephen Wolfram in A New Kinll of Sri-
n,cr or th. totalizi ng picture of escalating onto-genesi, promoted by Howard
Morowill in The Emergence of Ew'ylhillg. Th.   que5tion" of Hayles's
book i> precisely how the "new kind of science'" t hat informs what ,h. call. the
"Regime of Computation" con "serve to deepen our understanding of what it
means to be in the world rat her than apart from it, co-maker rather than domi-
nator, participants in the complex dl'namiu; that connect 'what we make' and
'what (we think) we are.' ""
While we concur with thi' desideratum and consider it central to what we
dre calling neocybernetics, we 'imply cannot endorse this po,ition, For Hayles,
d"'eloping an understanding of our const itutive worldliness requires a trans-
gression Dr dismi,sal of the boundaries separating any 'ystem from its em'iron-
IIltnt:   of all kind. ha"e bffome   to supposed Dlh .. ,
Code p"rmeales language and is p"rmealed by it; eie<:tronic text p"mlfales prim;
computalional ptrm .. te biologicol organisms; intelligent machine.
p"rmeatellesh, Rather than attempt to poli« the .. boundaries. we .hould m iw
to understand the matorially sptcil1c ways in which t10ws aero," borders ereate
complex dynamics of intermediation."" In our view. the .. formulation. are
simply too vague, It is not at all dear what exactly such "p"rmeation" might
amount to, given the very different optrational fusions being a ... ned. In her
zeal to lea\'e closure in th. dust. Hayles 'imply glosses 0\'", the \'ery differen-
tiatiOn> from which systems are generatod in the 11m place. Thi. mow shon-
circuit. the machinery of emergence before emergence even gots ,tarud.
Nroqbernetic> contend. that it i. preci,ely the injunction against such
flows of informatioll across the boundary demarcating an aut opoietic or self-
r.ferential . ystem from it. environment that dri","s the throry'. crucial insights
into theoptrations of .. If-,.ferential and recursive forms, It is nDl a mal1erof
"polici ng" op"rational boundarie.: not only are they self-prOOucing and sdf-
maintaining, but they are the condition of the possibilityof 'ystemic functions in
the I1rst place. The em'ironment can ptnurb li" ing, psychic. and >DCial . ystems
but cannot o{'<'mtiOlwlly ;II-fom, them. More ' imply put , environmental stimul i
can trigger system. to restructure themse)ves but cannot directly or causally
impact their function. W. em say, then, that system,' observations of their en-
vironment are internall), and aut onomously constructed by their own ongoing
.. If-productions. In other words., to maimain their autopoie,is. ( .. If-referential )
system, must remain operationally (or organilationally) closed to information
from the en"ironmem. On that basis, they can construct their interactiOn> with
their em'ironment '" information, Luhmann writes " i th regard to the op"ration
of communication in social . ystems: • A , ystem.-throretical apprwch empha-
sizes the fmrrg""" of t<mlll,u,,;m,iOl' it .. lf. Not hing is transferred. ""
To forestall a misunderstanding that has dogged second-order ' ystem, the-
ory since its inception, we need to in, ist upon the sJ=il1city of neoc),bernflics'
complex. nuanced. and paradoxical undemanding of the concept of ,w,urr,
Once tne paradigm shift is mad. from the phy,ical to tnelife sciences., the order-
from-noise principl. in .. If-organizing s)"tem, gives wa)' to the openne,,-
from-dosure principle in autopoietic ' )"tem, . To understand the stakes of thi'
development, one must bring into play the fundamental distinction between
thermodynamic and autopoiflic principles, Thermodynamically. a _ystem is
cill"r op"n or dosed to energic exchange with its en\'ironment; by contrast ,
autopoiflic system, are bolh environmentall y op"n to energic exchange ""'/
op"rationally dosed to informatic transfer. According to thi' undemanding,
oper.l1ional from 'imply oppo5td to openn.»---is in fact
th. precondition for openn .... which i, to say for any cogniti,'e capacity what-
Al;. of contributo", demonstrate. thi' generalized correlation
of closure with cognition inform' Varela", d"'dopment of n.ocybernetic>-
'p"'ificaUy hi. deydopm.nt of the openne .. -from-closure principle-from its
initial theorization in rdation to autopoi.tic ')"ltem, to th. meta-autopoietic
a,semblage, that, arguably, characterize contemporary society.
In their variou, characterization, of "utopoi",i" Maturana and Varel. cor-
relate organizational clo,ure with interactional openn ... : it is an organism',
(or ')"ltem' , ) self-perpetuation that allows it to he structurally coupled to the
environment. In thi' ,-olume, Evan Thompson restates thi' core
in'ight from the pe"recti ... of V arela 'slater work bridging life and mind, n.u-
ro""i.nce and phenomenology, through the concept of aut opoi .. i>: "The self-
transcending mowm.nt oflif. i, none other than metabolism, and metaboli,m
i. none other than the biochemical instantiation of the .utopoietic organization.
That organization must remain invariant---{}therwi .. the organi,m di.s-but
the only way autopoi .. is can stay in place i, through the incessant material nux
of metaboli,m. In other word" the operational c/o,"reof autopoi .. i, demand,
that the organi,m he an open 'ptem. ·" Thi' nuanced concept of closure al",
inform' Luhmann", remark that with second-order 'ystem, theory, "The (,ub-
""Juently classical) distinction between "closed' and 'open'   as that was
previously defin.d in regard to .!lopoietic physical and m",hanieal system,
under strictly thermodynamic regim ... "is replaced by the quostion of how rof-
ref,rem;,,1 rio,"", mn m'iH' op",ne«. ·l! Arguments that .. ,ume clo,ure to he
the 'imple binary opposite of openness fall ,hon of the letter and complexity
of neocybernetic conceptualization.
Put another WO)', in order for a 'ystem to perpetuate itself, it must maintain
its capacity to .. duce environmental compl.xity, which is to ..,y to proce .. it
not as direct input but a. penurbation catalyzing (internal ) structur.1 change.
A, von Foerster', ·postulate of cogniti,-e homeostasi," has it (.nd thi' would
certainly hold for autopoietic 'ystem, in general), "The normu, system i, or-
ganized (or organizes it .. IO '" that it computes a stable reality,' ''' The chal -
I.nge we propose to take on here is p,"cisel)" the one ad,-anced by Hayles in the
name of the contemporary t",hnoscienc .. of emergence , To Hayles', claim that
neocybernetics C'3/lnot embrace the complexity of contemporary emergence<
and their permeation of 'ptem, boundaries, we reply that   cml
Ix UIliUrslood r/lro!lgh rloe corrrhltiOlJ of 'pre",;, rlosurr and op,mrru. What i,
needed is a generaliz,uion of the openness-from-dosure principle that i, capable
of addr .... ing the full complexity of system, operations and envi-
ronmental couplings. To dewlap ,uch a generalization, we propose to explore
how nrious facet' of neocyi>ernetics---run n i ng the !}Imu t from V arda' 5 work on
living   to Luhmann', account of communicational autopoi.,is---<leploy
recursi"ity to underwrite emergence. Our .ffons here are loosely guided by Ih.
following postulate'. They are intended a, inilial 'tep' toward spKifying whal
we mean by neocybernetic emergence and toward generalizing it' extension:
t. Neocybernetics r"luir., a recognilion that there are only two orders of
cybernetics or, aiternali" eiy, that Ihe ,hift from a first-order 10 a second·
order cybernelics marks the passage 10 a general form of recur,i,"it}" Ihal
can (contra Ha)'les) spiral and thereby create Ihe new at SUC(fS-
sively higher le .... ls. While such a requirement inher., in all the neocyber·
nelic accounts explon-d in our volume, it· finds exemplary e>:pression in
von Foe"rster' s daim that second-order cybernetic, is a "cybernetics of cy-
bernetic," and that a "third- [or higher- [ order cybernetic, ... would nOl
create anyth i n g new. becau ... by a",endi n g i nto . second-order: as Arist aile
would "'y, one has stepped into the circle that upon itself.""
>.. Neoc},bernetic, facili tates a concept of emergence that differs in alleasl
one fundamental way from the concepl of emergence central to contem-
porary techno",iences and the regime of compUiation. Whereas the lalter
underst:lnd, emergern:e as a mOl'ement ff()m to the complex (d.
Wolfram', maxim: from 'imple rules., complex behavior), neocybernetics
"iews it as a movement ff()m Ihe (haolically complex to the manageably
complex." In line wilh what Luhmann calls ,Uro"'plrxijimlion, il is. gl"en
that any panicular 'ptem that emerges within an environment is nec=r-
ily leM complex than thai environment (,ince the latter will alwap contain
",allY olher systems). Indeed, one of the capi tal advantages of the concepl
of Ihe ... If-referential sptem (as against the notion of the subjecl) is its
d el iMation of such a '} ',capaci t}' to manage environmental complex-
ityand indeed to derive its identily and ils autopoiesi, from its continua!
nt'td 10 r...:l uce t he complexity of the en>"i ron ment by proceMi ng it through
systemic constraints. Our eooe3''Of he", will be to produce "iab!e accounts
of emergence Ihat meel the terms of Ha)'b's obje<:tion---and the body
of ", ... arch upon which it draws------by ,howing how nrocyhernetics can in
fact account for the interplay of complexificalion and
in 'Y"tems thai do more than simply maintain their thermal homeostasis
or ba",l autopo;",i •. l! is our cO",'i<lion. moreover, that ,uch an account
is precisely what li ... 1 the he.rt of neocybernetics and that what differ-
entiates it from recent te<:hnmciences of emergence and computational
account.> of complexity i, pr",i .. ly it' mo,.e fine ·",al.-d and dynamic ac·
count of operational dosure.
H .. e neocybernetics ,can endorse the objection rai .. d by Ray Kurzweil
against Wolfram', new ",ience-to wit. that it explores the emergence of com·
plex patterns at a first level of complexity. leaving aside the crucial i"ue of
how I"'l1erns self-organi,. to create higher levels of complexity." And.
indee<l. neocybtrnetic, lend, philosophical ,ubstance to this objretion. since
the shift from fir>!- to >r<:ond·order cybernetiu- from cybernetic, to neo-
cybernetiC5--i' pr«isely what renders r«ursi" ity capable of self· organilation
and formal e,-olution. Once again. it is \'on Focrst .. who makes explicit the
link between neocybemetics and the commitment to the motif of closure: "The
essential contribution of cybernetic. to epistemology i. the ability to change an
open system into a dosed ... "",ially as regard, the closing of a linrar.
open, infinite cau",,] nexus into do",d, finite, ci rcular causality.""
Thi. ,hift from an equivocal concept of openness to an operational concept
of openness-from-c1osure underwrite. a related .hift from a representational-
ist to a cOll5tructi,'ist epistemology and ontology. I n this way, neocybernetics
can addre .. the wavering between two .. n",. of emergence------epistemologi-
al and ontological emergence-that has dogged the computational modd of
emergence." Wolfram can daim only to furnish a model of epistemological
emergence. ewn if (or whenl he want. to daim more than that; that i. why
the principle of "computational "luinlence" (which state. that a computer
,imulation of a complex process must be as complex a. the process it .. lf)
furnish .. the most powerful ",sument for hi' model of emergence. By con-
trast. neocybernetics, precisely because it invest' in circular r«ur.i\'ity. seeks
to develop a mechanism for explaining what Hayl .. (glossing Morowill ) call.
"d)'namical hierarchicalemergenc .. : which is to say "how one dplamicallewl
enchaill5 and emerges from the next lower one through their intersecting dy-
namics."'" Here the exten.ive ,imilarities between nrocybtrnetics (cybernetics
of cybtrnetics) and Morowi!z', fourth (and to date final) stage of emergence
(mind contemplating mind) are telling, since recu ... ivi!y In both ca ... forms
a powerful vehicle for the reduction of complexity that fuel, emergence at the
higherle"el. A. specified through rreor,i'·ity. the pruning algorithms that allow
",Iection of probable condition, from a         possibilit)"-51"''''
function in a .. err . imilar to ree,my, the neocybernetic mech.nism
,,,,,,ified by Grorge Spencer-Brown', Law. of Form. the recursive introouc-
tion of a system-en"ironment distinction into Ihe 'ystem it",lf (for more on
Spencer-Brown'5 concept of reflllry, see the essays by Clarke and Schiltz in this
Following in Ihe wake of the .. similarities and also of the technosci -
mces of eme' gencr that are undeniably at work in our world today. the task
facing neocyl><rnelics---and our various explorations in thi' volum«---<:an l><
'pecified 10 l>< thai of showing how the ineluctable .. of.
system that must maintain its autonomy ov .. time can yidd the of
Ihe new. which is to say how it can yirld understood in its current
usage as the appra,ance al the 'fstem's globallevol of properties thai do not
nist at the local level of a 'y'lem', compon.nts.
Another way to undersland this 'pecification mum. u, to our claim con·
c.rning th. 'prcificity of the neocybernetic concept of
Ihat in contrast to the te<:hnosciencr. of em .. gence, it proceeds nol (lik. some
lauer-day Herbert Spencer) from tlK 'imple to the comple1. but rather by way
of ')"5t em· specific a "" syst. m· internal reduction. of h)"percom plexity to ordere<l
complexity. Thi' is the meaning of "on Foersler's statement Ihat it is Wf who
invent the thai we prrceive and of similar claims appraring in
Varela', conception of the of significance" and in Luhmann's account
of contingent .. le<:ti"ity. indeed, th ... claims aU instance the op"ration of an
'1'istemologi cal conslructivism that iHommon to aU of the contributions in Ihi'
,'Olum., including those, like Mark Hansen's and ira Livingston's, thai mani fest
some doubts about Luhmann' s strong constructi"i,m. For th ... crilics----and
here is what differentiales their account, of .mergence from the more positiv-
iSI technoscientific account of Hayles---th. insistence on th. ",Iue. indeed th.
ne<:e"ity. of constructi"ism becomes .11 the more"e in the wake of the
unprecedented te<: hnological complexification ofth. environment thai coincides
with the massi ... di>semination of computational throughout5OCiety.
Indeed, both Li,-ingston .nd Hansen tum 10 constructivi,m as • hdpful,
if not ultimaldy suffici.nt, resource for reconceplualizing human agency as
I"'hn;cally distributed agfncy. Even if their contribul ion, "'iner a l><lief that
contemporary en"ironmental complexity h .. largdy oUlstripped th. capacity
of systems to reduce it, conceptualization of hybrid fonns of agency-
encompassing humans and technico-environm.ntal procrsse:s-----<ontinnes to
in,·.,t in the minimal Luhmannian commitment that shores up all the config-
urations of neocyl><rnetics coU",ted here: th. idea that .. I",tion i, k.y to in-
stituting difference into what would oth.rwise r.main undifferentiale<! chaos.
For the .. critics, it is the ca .. that en"ironmenlal proc .... s have indep"ndent
agr ncy in technically distribule<! cognitive processes. bUl thi, realily doe. not in
any way ob,-i'le thr value of partial and pro"isional dosure->----<:Iosures that cut
ac r05S 'fst e", -. n,'iron boundaries---for facilitat ing ob.<er .... tion of tech n i-
cally distribute<! cognitiv. op"ratiom of hybrid,:
14 aRliCE ClARK! MARK!. N.
Di,tinction As.emblage
At a more generalle"d, the epistemological collStructi,·i.m of nroc),bernetic.
pro,"i des new fram .. of om.rvJI ion d i'po,ing one to rna rk '}   ron ment
distinctions more rigorously. Thi. i, an analytical option lih an)' other, but
arguabl)" it ;. one with real purcha", on the ind uetable ",If-referenu entail.-d
by and embedded within all descriptions. The "If-evident propooition Jl the
self-referential origin of system, theory a, a scientific discourse i, that "there
are .)·stems," foUowed immediately by its corollary: ""There are self-referential
When Luhmann goes on to indicate that all the heterogeneou, a.-
semblag .. of biotic and metabiotic ')""tem, and their en"ironmen" are just
a, self-referential as the "self-reflecti .... of Western metaphysic, that
pri"ileged itself on its .upposedly unique possession of refl",i,-ity, the neocyber-
netic description of .ystems cuts across the grain of classical logic. Whereas the
trrm "reflexivity" retailed by Hayl ... Morowill, a nd othe .. retains the ,ubjectiv-
ist connotation of "ret1ection'" in "the mirror of the mind," we have preferred
the posthumani<l term, ",'''''';OM and ,eeu,,;vi,y to underscore that wh.t is
being nam.-d, from cell, to servomrchan;'m, to societi .. , are the recursive
functions of operationally closed observing ')""tem" How"'er, e"en within th •
.. me neoc),bernetic model, there i, an impon.nt difference in it, theorization
of biotic as opposed to metabiotic .ystem •. A, Luhmann point. out, not all
aUlDpoietic syst.m, u .. "'fI''';''g a. a way to "vi nualize" the 'Y'tem!environ-
ment relationship, Living 'ystem, do not, "but for tho", that do" - psychic and
social .ystems---- i, the o"ly possibility."
Key trnets of neocybernetic logic thu, run a, (1) the .. are
(2) ob .. ""uion i. possible only on the part of an ob .. rving Ul 'ystem,
are .. If-referential, and so. in their treatment of malleTS beyond them .. lw,.
paradoxical: and (41 that which i, ob .. rved as paradoxical in our experience
is not nec .. sarily a cognit i"e aberration but is j uS! as likely to be a nr<: .... ry
component of the possibility of any "'periener at all. If one pr .. , .. thi.logic
toward philosophical polemic, it might go like t his: Many of the problem, of
mooern social system, are .",,,rbated by faulty understandings of the real.y' -
tematiciti .. of things and thu" for all our vaunted rationalit)". by the ,ubsequent
unreal or in""lid construction. (read: ideological of causes and
effects in the world. To beller gra.p th. world that i, their osten,ible object, the
organs of scientific knowl edge must a,commodate themsel"es to the recu .. i,·e
paradoxicaliti .. of their own operation. In ,um: our understanding of the world
comes by way of an as .... m.nt ofthe world', impact on 'ystem,. which i, to say
on th< ,-ery 'ptem, that gi\'e u, cognitive purcha .. in the first plaer.
In pari, then, Ihe goal of 'his volume is 10 sel aside a 101 of Ihe anachronislic
",mami" Ihal ha\', accrele<! to   Iheorr and replace them wilh more
viable pr.,;upposilions, For instance, one can ""'ge against Ihe   bUllhal
rage will proceed on Ihe basi' of Ihe momenla,), well -being of various affecti ... ,
cognitive, and communicali,.. N.ocybernetics underscores Ihallh .. e
are operational horizons Ihatpul ultimate limits on the disorder of both
cal and cognitive system,. Atth. same time, the evolulion of systems feeds on
anarchy- ,omelim.s rage is an effective form of communicali,'e irrilation.
This is juslto say thai n.ocybernetic 'ystoms Iheorr al ils besl pu" new eyes
on and into Ihe world, X-ray   that "'parate oslensibly unitary construc-
lion5--nominal identitie, sliU freighle<! wilh (apilal but lacking in
"subslantial" ontologr- into multiple syslentS references. Crilics looking al
neocybernetics who focus on Ihi' "negative" moment in ils discourse lend 10
"'" il a, a particularlr souiless idi om of nihilistic deconslruction. What this
criliqu. dearly lacks i, the con\'e"ion '""perience thai "1'''''''''' the sign" of
syslems-theoretical dislin(tion-making from sublracti.-e to additive and Ihal,
like deconstruction, factor, Iheplay of ,upplementarity into one's habi" of
discu";,,.. comprehension. For whal drive, Ihe work of Ihinkers like luhmann
and Varela, no I .. , Ihan Ihe contributions Ihal make up Ihis volume, i, an
interesl in bringing an ,,-er-complexif}-ing world imo Ihe framework of cog-
nition, Whal distinguish .. the neocybernetics approach from olher contem-
po .. ry cultural thwreticai positions is an app=ialion of the difficulti .. and
complex;li .. inmh-e<! in doing precisely Ihal , II is our hope thai the ..... ys in
this ,"olume will help to get Ihal neocybernelic message-Io appreciale
Ihe i mpoManc e of Sysl em,-theoretical disti n(tion-making_nd wUI allow them
10 .ngage producti, with second-order 'ystems thwry's rich potential, for
furl her d,,-elopment.
Conlents 01 [mergence and [mbodiment
The inter"iew wilh Heinz mn Foer>ler Ihal begins Ihe volume look place less
Ihan a year before he diffl atlhe age of ninety-one. He had b«n interviewed
many lim.,; by Ihen, bUI unique to Ihis inter',iew are the answers he giws 10
questions aboulth. funher gro ... 1h of hi' own neocybernetic brainchild. Hi,
remarks on the line of ",cond-order cybernelic development, from Maturana
and Varela's conception of aUlopoi"i, to Luhmann's approprialion of il for
social systems Iheory, pUlto rest any doubt one mighl have had regarding hi'
opinion on Ihe ,'alidity of social autopoi";i,. Beyond thai, the conversation
documents the fable<! vivacily of this greal Ihinker, the cultural resources he
drew on as an ' miS" from Wittg,n>!,in' s Vienna, and the "magical"" nature
of psychic system. in ><xial communication. working out the resonances that
c .. ate mutual understanding.
In "Heinz von Foerst"'s o.mons: The Emergence of S-cond-Ordor Sys-
tem. Bruce Clarke examines some of the prehistory of neocyber-
neti« by .. ading yon Foerster', key 19.19 paper on ",If-organization through
the hindsight of his early 1970. work that launched second-ord .. "yMrnetics
proper . Instructively for the culture of hi' panicula. scientific practice, von
Foerster". di"u"ive milieu is populated by 01.J and new allq:o.ical figu .....
Not one but two Maxwell', Demons bind thermodynamic to informatic ",If-
organization in the 19511 pape., and hi. own c ... tion, the Man with the Bowie.
Hat. link> that ea.lier paper with "On Con>!nKting a Reality" of 1973, by way
of contra>!ing the .ingularity of metaphysical solip.ism with the multiplicities
of epistemological constructi vism. Not only does it take multiple demo", to
conceptualize negent. opy in informational system,. but it also takes the co·
construction of at least two operationally clo",d Db",,,,ers to proou« a reality:
"Reality appears as. con.istent ref .. ence frame for at least two ob",,,,.,· •. The
concluding "'C1ion of the essay unfolds this powerful statement from the 19.19
paper as a prefiguration of the n<"OC)i>ernetic "oncep1 of w."nlry, by which the
systemJenvironment dyad recurs upon and .amifies within the system it",lf.
In Luhmann·, theory, the dyad of mutually dosed psychi" and ><xial .ystems
is capable of interpenetration and meaningful resonance just becau", both
sy.tem. share this same pa.adigmatic ope.ation. b.coming "two  
that con>!ru", out of their coupl ed autonomies Ihe world as a ,eference frame
for p.ychic and ><xial .. alities.
Franci"o Varela's "The Early Day. of Autopoiesis" giYe' his account ofthe
pe.sona] and cultural circumstances. the intellectual and academic milieus.
within which the concept of autopoiesi. was cuIti,-ated. Humberto II.laturana
and Heinz von Foerst .. play major roles in this narrat i ... , a. do other figures,
including rean Piag". hom lllich. and E.ich Fromm. Varela cites Wiener. Mc-
Culloch, and , ·on Foerster as "th. pioneers of the conjuJlc/ioJl of epistemological
reflection, .. ",arch and mathematical modeling. " Along with
this background in cybernetic epi.temology. Varela also stre,ses the impor-
tan .. of hi. philosol'hicIl readings from Husser! and Mefleau-Ponty for the
d .. .,.e!opment of hi. scientific work. Throughout this engaging remini"en .. of
a tu.bul<nt and "'minal period culminating in his self· exile from Chile in the
aftermath of the assassination ofSah·ador All ende, Varela ill uminat .. the path,
that ewntu.lly led him -from autopoiesi. to neurophenomenology.'·
As Varda has femini<ced .boUI the formatiw JX"riod of his own science, in
"Life and Mind, From AUlOpoi",i. 10 N.urophenomenology," Enn
Thompson oJX"ns hi.', drawn from a ,alk giwn 2004 Varela S)'mpo-
sium in Paris, wilh a memoir oftho circumstance, of his .arliesl encoumer wilh
Ci<co, Fift .. n years after Ihal meeling in 1977, Varela, Thompson, and Eleanor
Rosch would publish Thr E",bodled M;,rd: COS"i/i,,' SciCliU ",,,I H"",,,,, Experi-
mer, which imroducro a general readorship 10 Ihe scimli fic work Varda el ai ,
had do"riop"d by Ihen althe conjunclion of .pi "emological reHedion and ex-
p"rimental resear,h. Th. neocyb.rnetic theme of operational ",ursion emerg",
here as "Ih. 'fundamental circular il)" of science and     Thompson
folio"," oUllh.l ines Ihatlink neurophenommological r=arch 10 the "embodied
mind" implicil in MalUrana and Varda'. inilial formuial ions of aUlopo;',is and
ultimaldy in MalUr.n", pre-aulOpoietic in.ights in "Th. BioloFJ' of Cogni -
tion," then Irdce, fO"'''fd Varda's own refinemems of aUlopoietic cognition in
hi' careful unfolding of embodiro "stnst-making" through a concaten31ion of
f«ursive emerginl}', from life 10 ",If to world, and Ihence to "cognition, in the
minimal sense of viable st n.sorimotor conduct. ' Emergence and embodimem
dowtail when Thompson term, for understanding Varda' , Jale rap-
prochement wilh Ihe nOlion of Ideology, nol as the sourer or goal of aUlopoi -
etic organization, but as an emergem domain arising from th. coupling of an
.utopoi<"1ic 'pM'" 10 its enabling environmem, it. embodied world,
In "Beyond Autopoi.,is: Inflection. of Emergener and Politics in Francisco
Varela," John Prolevi also lrace. key luming point' in Varela', work. Prote,,;
focuses "'peciaUy on the concepl of emergonce, which was always central for
Varela, and on qu",'ions of politics, which operale allh. margins ofVarda'.
though!. He di\'id .. Varela's work imo Ihr .. p.rioos----aulOpoi.,is, . naction,
and radi,al .",bodim. m----.,ach of which i, marked by. guiding concepl, a
.pecific ",olhodology, a research focus, .n infleclion in Ihe nOlion of emer-
gence, and a char.cteriSlic political que"ion. Prole"i investigal'" Ihe implicit
· political physiology" of Varda '. work- thai is, th. form.lion of political
stal ... nd politically COn.stilUled indi\'idual, and Iheir imerseclion in polili -
cal encoumer .. Proto"i maimain, ,h. , in each register of political physiology
the emergence of 'ystems ,hould be thought in lerm, oflhe resolution of the
diffe..,mial relations of a dynamic field. Varela had to mow "beyond autopoi -
.,is," in Prol<'"i', "iew, pfecisely 10 be abl. to Ihem.tile such dplami,m, as Ihe
fecursi\'e slTuctu re of Ihe ,ulopoietic , y"em inhibi" Ih. abilil}' 10 conceive
of d}namic change. In other words, for Varela ,ulopoie,i. i, bound 10 'yn-
chronic emergence (pari -whole relationsl, wh"rea, enaclion can accoum for
,ynchronic and diachronic emersence (creation of nowl organiz.ation), and
radical embodiment can account for 'ynchronic, diachronic. and tramver-
.aJ emergence (body-brain-environment loops). Protevi ..." thi' Ian ... wider
conceptual scheme as   to an undemanding of poli'icalencounters
in all their dimensions.
In line with Thompwn and Protevi, in "Sy,tem-En\'ironment Hybrid,
Mark Hamen also focuse, on Varela's conceptualizati on of emergence with
the coupling of autopaietic system, and embodied world,. His
'pecific aim h .. e is less to explicate the trajectory of Varela 's thinking for itsdf
than to position Varela---and ,pecifically Varela's decoupling of autonomy (do-
,urd from autopai .. is in hi ' key 1979 text, Prindpb of Biological AulolW"'r---at
the origin of a mode of conceiving contemporary cogniti"e agency as massi\'ely
technically di'tributrd. Varela's decoupling of autonomy from autopo;"'i, fa ·
cilitate. the deployment of dosure at a hi gher level of indusiwne .. and with
a complrx internal differentiation. Such a modification is necessary, Hansen
argues, if we are to throrize the multiple and differentiated levels of autonomy
that characterize what he caUs "system· en,·ironment hybrid," (HI!S), complex.
hybrid fomlS of embodied, cognitive enact ion t hat in\'ol,.. human cognizers
coupled with technicall)' ad\'anced environmental processe, wielding their own
agency. Drawing impiration from Bruno latour' , description of contemporary
hUlllan/nonhulllan hybrid. as «"'ther horrible melting pots," Han"n po,i -
tions SEH. at cros'-purpose' to Luhmann's desc ri ption of operationall y closed
"Y'tenlS functioning through effective decomplexifi cation of the environment.
According to Hamen, it is preci"ly .u,h decomplexification that has become
both highly problematic and atypical in toda)"'. techno'phere, where we are
continuall)" acting together with cognitivdy sophisticated machines; in our
technosphere, the agency and complexity of the environment .i mply cannot
be reduced to a fu nCiion of a system.
While Han"n foUow. Luhntann in maintai ning that selection is key to in-
stituting difference into what would otherwise remain undifferentiated chao,.
he depans from Luhmann when he asks whether the institution of difference
might rath .. cross over system-environment boundaries and thu, underwrite
hybrid fomlS of agency comprised of human beings and complex technological
processes. In thi' endeavor, Hansen draw, on the work of Katherine Hayles,
Andy Clark, and Felix Guau"ri, all of whom argue for the need to complicate
the concept of cl osure in light of the technically rich environment' in which
we Ii.-, and act in our world today. To dewlop a strong account of en\'iron-
mental ag,ncy, Hansen turns to two French thinkers-political philosopher
Cornelius Castoriadi. and biophenomenologist Gilben Simondon- whose
work hdp.1D expand the impact of Varela' , dKoupling of aUionomy from
autopoiesi,. Combined wit h Varela' , insistence on t he integrily of t he human
and on continuity aero" divergent levd. of being, Castoriadi. ' , differentiation
ofle,.el, of aUlDnomy and hi. conceplion of radical creativity and Simondon',
pri\'ileging of the agency of the el,,"ironmenl (what he call. lhe "preindividual")
in t he operation of all pnxeMeS of indi\'iduation furnish t he 1001. nre .. ",'}'
to Iheorize, in a broadly nffiCybernelic mode, t he functioning of 'EH' t hat
emerge in Ihe wake of the contemporary complexification of our lechno'phere.
Ralher Ihan possessing institutional (autopoietic) dosure that cut. across Ihe
human, loday', .EHS are crealed and dynamically evolve Ihrough whal Hansen
calls "technical dosures. " provi,ional form. of closure facilitated by contingent
conjunclion. of human. and IKhnologi ...
One major goal of t his ,·olum. is to work Ih rough Ihelingering cont rover·
sies owr Ihepurchase and application of the concepl of aUlopoi .. i. , wit hout
blurring the imporlant differenc .. slaked out by the key th<"Orisl' involved but
also in hope, of illuminating Ih. shared commilments that galher t he wid ..
discourse of ne()(ybernetics logether. Thu. we haw deliberalely broughl the
work of Francisco Varela and Nik!as Luhman n into direct contact, and we
in\'ile our readers ID determine Iheir own po, itions within Ihe powerful llffl-
cybernetic force field Ihey generate belween Ihem. In "Self· Organization and
Autopoi .. i,," our excerpt from Einfohrung in di. Sy,rrnllh.",;, (Introduction
ID ' Y' lem, thfflry), Luhmann introduce, hi' reformulation of aUlDpoirsi. by
distingui.hing il from anolher. clo,ely relaled bUi earlier. syslem, concept wilh
whi ch il i. often confused. namdy, self· organi7.alion. Thi' concepl aro,. in t he
heyday of first -order cybernetics but ",'en then marked Ih. turning of dassical
cybernetic interest toward Ihe manifestly autonomous behaviors ofbiolic and
metabiotic ,y.tem., relative 10 Iheir mKhanica[ and compulalional counter-
parts. In contraSI. aUlopoirsi, was a SKond-order cybernetic concepl from its
inception, marking the initial fulfillment of von Foerster' s heuri'lic formula -
lion. of "' Kursi\'e mrehani,m, in 'yslem,."
The facl l hal self-organization remains a fundamental concepl in Ihe con-
lemporary science. of emergence indicales a sidelining or di,m; , sal of t he
,emnd-order, aUlDpoietic approach. We see it a. a kind offirst-o,der hangover
of Ihe al3\'istic desire 10 endow computational wilh Ihe facilities of a
body, a drsire be>! epilomized in Ih. developnH ... nt of anificiallife research, and
broughllo powerful and ironic narrative realization in Richard Powers',  
2../. Luhmann formulates t he distinction in conci", terms: self-organizalion
rdalos 10 aUlOpoirsi. as Sltuctures relate 10 .ystem,. The importanl point i.
nol l nal cenain .yslems "'are" self-organizing, bUI ralh .. Ihal because certain
20 BRuCE nARK[ MAU!. N.
'ptem, a .. self-referentially or operationally dosed, their formation ofint.rnal
"ructur., can re,ult only from processe, of wlf-org,mization. As Luhmann puts
it. "t her. i, no importation of structures from dsewh .. e." To devdop this point.
Luhmann works through a serie, of m.mory. and the
determ i nation of the observ.r - relating the structuraliry of a utopo i.tic '}"5U m,
to "",pornlit)'. Sy'temic muctu"" partake of the time of the '}"Stem and
h"'r effect only in the present moment of it' operation,. Thi' mntingency is
most mncretely obvious in the life of a cell but i, also .n,hrined in the trui,m
one applies to psychic and social ,y,um" mind" and relationship" Uw i , or
/0" if; an autopoi.tic 'ystem i, always about the bu'in .... , from moment to
moment, of reeomt""ting its structure •.
The continuation of the Luhmann excerpt take, up autopoiesis pro",r and
includes some important reminiscenc .. ofh" com'ersation, with "'aturana. For
instaner, Luhmann gi.· .. his version of the anecdote concerning the  
distinction that Varela related about Maturana in "Early He also join' von
Foerster in commenting on Maturon. and Varela', hesitation to apply the con-
cept of autopoi .. is to the proc,,"ses of social communication. It i, OUT hope that
the overlapping concern, of the readings .\.Sembl.d in thi' volume will help to
bury this bone of contention and allow ev.ryone concern.d with the furt her de-
",lopment of nrocybernetics to mo\" on to more frui tful initiatives. What unites
all of the essaY' """,mbled here is the concept of operational closure. As Luhmann
e""lains, the recognition of operational desu,"" "i, connr<:ted to a break with the
epistemology of the ontological tradition that ,upposed that something from
the environment ente ... into the one who mgni",s and that the e""ironment is
represented, mirrored, imitated. or ,imulated within a mgnizing 'ptem. In thi,
re'pect the radicalism of thi' innovation is hard to undere,timate. "
In "Space Is the Place: The Laws ofForn, and Social S}"5tem,,"' Michael S<:hiltz
examines a key r<"SOurce for neocybernetic innm"ation, Grorgr Spencer -Brmm's
Laws of Form, a work of owrarching importance in Luhmann', lat .. ,tudi ..
of the fuuctional 'ystems of society and their ml mination in the------<leliberately
paradoxically formulated- "society according to society" (Dir G."lIwlmft J",
GfSl'lls<h'ifr). Unsurpri,ingly, Spencer-Brown', "calculus of indications" had
previou,ly <captured Heinz von Foerst .... attention. In his Whole Earth Ca,alog
re\'iew first run in 1970. \"On Foerster enthu,iastically proclaimed Laws of Farm
a book that ", hould he in the hands of all young people. "" In '97.1 Francisco
Va .. la deemrd it a -.. lculu, for self-reference. "" Yet for all it' seminal qualities,
Laws af Form remains a .ubject of mntention, panicularty on account of its
dense. at times koon-like, .'OCabula'Y (for instance: "distinction i, perfr<:t conti -
nence"). In s<:hiltz', illuminating treatment. Spencer-Brown', calculus present'
a plOtologic of distinctions., rehea"ing th. form. of any possible observation.
FlOm this angle, it d.rive. its imponance flOm its unu.uJI r.alization and in·
novati"e.xpan.ion of topological awarene ... II addre .... something not often
r.alizrd, the contingency of 'pact'-in particular two-dim.nsional
spac"......."nd d.monstrates that by reconceiving the form of .pace. we mal' mran-
ingfullyand more .a.ily conceive of forms that • ... nter" their own .pace. For
instance, di.tinctions written on a torus ·can .ubven (turn under) bound·
aries, travel thlOugh the torus., and rcenter the spa" they distinguish, turning
up in their own forms."
Thi' re<:onc.ptualization of space has wid.· ranging consequ.nces for epis-
t.mology. For exdmple, it inform' Luhmann'. d.scription of the autopoi •• i. of
p'ychic and which must Teenterth. syst.m/environm.nt distinc-
tion into th.m",h· •• in ord.r to obserw their environment'. By stressing the
operati". nature of this process., Spencer· Brown thus present. the mathemati,al
foundations underlying .. cond-ord.r ,ybern.t id in.i.tence on constructi,· ·
i,m and "If· ref.rence, or autology. 115 long-standing applOpriation of Law"
of Form .how. how fundamentally second·order cybern.tics" "iew of the pos-
.ibilitie. and condition> of knowl.dge from traditional.pistemologies.
Shifting from the world of thin!\, to the world of observations., ..,If· ref ... nce
come. full ,irde: "Our understanding of the world thus cannot re,id. in ..,m.
form of discov.ry of i" present app<:arance (out th ... , beyond observation), b"t
com" from """,.,nbering II,e ce,,,·,.,,lio,", "gre",/ 10 in order 10 bring it "bo"t. "
Drawing on Luhmann' . sY5t.m. theory and Spencer-Brown's concept of
fonTI, Edgar l.andgraf'. "ImplO"isation: Form and hent- A Spencer-Brownian
Calculalion" theorize. the operational do.ure of the art .ystem and its conse-
quences for our understanding of the arti,t. Ihe cr.ativ. proce .. , and the .xpe-
riencing of art. Th. tim pan of the ..... y looks at impro"isalion historically and
argu .. that the twentieth c.ntury'. celebration of .pontaneily and impro,-i .. tion
in art. as w.lI as the put on performance and effe<:t, are long-term
con.equence, of aeslhetic codes that be<came dominant in the lat. eighteenth
c.ntury. Thes. codes secured the reproduction and 50Cial autonomy of art bUI
also chall.nged traditional notion, of agency in an. Th. aesthetics of geniu,
reacted to the.., challenges wilh paradoxical figurations of int.ntionality. In place, Landgraf suggests that .... und.rstand the art -creating a,
self-ordering. as a process that "duces the complexity and coming.ncy it find.
in its en"ironm.nt according to program. il devises for itself. Such description.
of the creati ... proc ... are abl. not only to theorize autonomy and
of arti't, artwork, and an system, but al.., to account for the increased
prominence of conting.ncy and improvis.lIion in modern an.
In the semnd part of hi. essay, Landgraf explores the neocybernetic shift
from an ontological to an operational viewpoint, in order to account for the
emph"'i' improvisation (and conteml"'ra'Y an in general ) puts on performance
and effKt over dep;ction and meaning. In line with Schiltz', dis<1J>Sion of Laws
of Fo,m .. a protologic, Landgraf . hows how Spencer-Brown', foml concept
aUow, us to conceive of afT in pre· r'1'",,,,ntational terms: we can understand
the "nper;'nce" of cogniti"e engagement with .n without having to .ssume
an interpretive , tance toward the work, but . 1>0 without having to ,ubscribe to
ontological notions of "materiality" or nistenti.listic definitions of the human
body.nd ourbeing· in-the-world. In'tead, we can mmprehend the anistic ""em
as created by the multiple, mnsciou, and subconscious. operations the psychic
and nervous systems (learned to) perform when they obS<"r',e. relate to, identify
with. ignore, refiKt on, and let themselves be surprised by the ani>!ic irritations
they find in their environment.
!.inda Brigham' . "CommunicaTion "ersu,Communion in Modern r.ychic
Systems: Maturana, Luhm.nn, .nd CogniTive Neurology" continues the focu,
on perceptual sy' tematics by"ssing the relationship modern social
time and rome pemliar instancesof ro-called temporal disruption in  
ape,ience. Her essay explores the impact of the global, univocal time that has
become increasingly necessary for The function ing of ad\"Jnced technological
society,. society in which performing .ppropriate actions at appropriate mo-
ments is criTical. Global modernity demands the orchestration of • huge array
ofhum .. n activities and places a premium on the interpenetration of unambigu-
ous linear temporal mea,ure, WiTh psychic 'y'tem,. In order to illuminate the
implicaTions of th is int erpenet raTion, Brigham explores th "'" inSTances in which
psychic 'ystem, hesitate or fail to .nimlate them .. "'" linearly in Time. The
phenomenon of the phantom limb, the intrusive memories that often follow
trauma. and the lingering sense of the dead that con>!iTute. grief all mmprise
condiTions in which the past i, experienced as in rome way present. Brigham'.
accountsofthe .. temporal disruptions ponray them as p<>'ling differing degr"'"
of threat to linear temporal autobiography.
Brigham argues ThattheS<" temporal disruptions of autobiography, pafTicu-
larly trauma and grief, introduce affecli,'e limit. to the inroads of mmmuni-
caTion- in Luhmann', .. nS<" of The me<!ium of social system.- <m psychic
'ystems and instead mn,titute the basi. for affecti" e comagion. a source of
social cohesion in which the cIooure between psychic system. and social.y"ems
appears to be in some way breached. Indeed, it may be that in The context of
  contagion certain high-Iewl autopoi",i, distinction. bet",..,n system
and environment are radi<:ally altere<!. and a range of salience emerges that is
not generally at the command of psychic system, imerpenelrated by modern
social sy'tem" Thi' scenario , uggests that Fredric fameson', observation of the
waning of affect in modernity has a systems-theoretical foundation.
CaryWolfe'. "Meaning a, Event · !\1achine, or System. Theoryand The Re-
construction of Decon>lruction' " returns to the n<'D<"j'bernetic disaniculation of
r<ychic and social system •. Dt-ci,i"dy confirmillg the breadth of sy.tem, theo·
ry" philosophical credential" Wolfe', ess.ay aligns the work ofNik!a, Luhmann
and facque< [)errida a. both com'erge on the problem of meaning- its form,
it, systematicity. and its function. Wolfe argues that Derrida and Luhmann
bring 10 bear on the question of meaning .. markably similar throretical stances
whose chief characteristics include difference, differentiation. distinction. and
temporalized complexity. Thi, cotwergence has been difficult for reade" to
grasp because Derrida and Luhmann approach the same theoretical terrain from
opposite directions and with rather different purposes. When- Derrida ..,um ..
the entrenchment of an always already logocent ric philosophicallradition that
must be ,hown to decollSlru,t itself, in the process rewaling the vdriom forms
of differen .. and coillplexity of meaning (Derrida's "writing") that such a text
represses, Luhmann's functional analysi, is concerned with how difference and
complexity are adaptive problm" for .ystems that need to continue their auto-
poiesi, in the face of   em'ironmental complexity. For Luhmann
as for [)errida, system, use "codes' to reduce a nd process complexity, but for
Luhmann as for Derrhla (a, in hi' concept of the grammt in OfG,,,,,,,mlfologr),
the fundamental nature of those codes is self· referential paradox that cannot
be overrome but only tempordlilfd.
Th ... , hared theoretical commitments enable Derrida and Luhmann to
d;,,,,1icuiate psychic and social sy,tems, consciousness, and communication (a
po,ition long familiar to reader< in Derrida's critique of the elention of spee<:h
O>'er writing and the auto-affection of the "Dice as presence in hi' .arly work),
the better to 'p<'Cify the ways in which they do, and do not, interpenetrate. For
both. communication is p",sibl. only as a form that tra nscend, dependence
upon perception and consciousn ..... As Derrida put. it. mtaning understood as
  compreh''''Js language in the more narrow sense. Both communica-
tion and consciousn ... , how .... r, use the form of meani ng, and the mediulll
that allows interpenetration i, language, a second-order .yolutionary
lhat, Luhmann write<, "transf ... social complexity into psychic
complexity" and one that becom.s more and more powerful- more and more
communicatiye----in the .... olutionary drift from graphi, and alphabetic writ -
ing to printing, which funher ... the reliance of communication upon
Both Derrida and Luhmann. then. undertake two crucial disarticulation>
that mah their work thoroughly anti -representationalist and resolutely rosthu ·
manist: on one hand, of psychic systems and consciousness from social systems
and communication. and on the other. of language in the strict sense as a type
of · symbolically generalizffi communications (Luhmann) from the
more fundamental drnamics of meaning that comprehend it. For both thinkers.
in other words. language may be human. but meaning is not. and this allows
us to think the .. lations between human and nonhuman worlds (technical,
social. animal, and biological) with a renewed appr<"<iation and understand-
ing for the henceforth Yirtual space that they co-constitute in their processes
of making meaning.
In "Comple:< Vi,uality: The Radi,al   Ira LiYingston provides
our volume a coda from the side angle of cultural studies. Li"ingston examin ..
a number of the claims this yolume makes for neocybemetics by viev.'ing them
through the lens of contemporary ,'isual culture. What. Livingston asks. can
postmodem constructions of visuality "tell us about notion> of emergence,
complexity, and   In lin. with Hansen", interrogation of the po-
tential for "system-environmem hybrids" to breach the system/environment
distinction and Brigham's investigation of cognil i ... phenomena that appear to
suspend notions of operational dosure in psychic l.j"ingston seeks to
delineate a "radical middleground" wherein the problematic. of the contem-
porary yisual field situate a continually emergent intermedial 'pace between
figure and ground, system and en,·ironment. Occupying his own discursive
middleground both inside and outside the parameters of neocyberneti( con-
cepts. LiYingston offers a perform.ti ... critique of this "olume'5 philosophical
polemics. S}mpathetic.lly skeptical, li"ingston's pointffi inquiries <clarify what
is at stake in the yolume's strong construction of neocybtrnetic.> continuing
relevance to current theoretical and cuhural debates.
Emergence and Embod,,,,,m is a collecti ... effort to update the historical
legacy of second-order cybernetics. J n order to understand today', hyperac""l -
eration of ifchnos<ientific incursions into the human and in order to arrive at
more highly articulated ob,.,,'ations of the systemic situated"e" of cognition,
all of the contributors correlate epistemological closure with the phenomena of
ontological emergence. In this respect, and despite thei r diversity, they force-
fully testify that the lau .. cannot be understood independently of the former.
The cont.mporary understanding that the human is and has always already
been po,thuman could not have emerged, and cannot be rendered productive.
without the perspecti\" afforded by neocybernetic =ursion.
t. \,,,01 •• "IotrodU<lion: Age. of von """",,,,,: "ii.
1. Ibid .• "i.
J. Ibid .• xvii.
4. Wi<oer. 11.< H"m"" U ... ofHum"I! !kings, 8.
5. Ibid .• l - L
6. s... A>hby. AI! /"I.od,,<I;oll '0 C,.oon,li ...
7. 8ote>oo, "Cybernetic I'.xpI.n.,ion: in SI<p' to Qtr frology of Milld. 40r.
A,hby. All /"I""/lI<lio" 10 Croff",'i,,- r.
9. Wiener. 111, Hum"" U ... of Hum"I! !kings, ''''1.
10. Ibid .• HO.
H. Luhmann. "The Medium of Aft. " 218 .
12. Von Foer".<. "00 Con!tfucting a Re..Ji'y: m .
I]. Ibid.
q . s... fOf iru.tance Atlm. "Hierarchical Self-Organiz"'ion in Li"ing Sy"em"
and \'"elo, A"lopoi<,,, al.1 C"!,,ilion . nd lh. I'ru 0/ K"owkdf<. M'rguli" " Big
Trouble in Biology" .nd SYffI/no,,, il! c./l f"w/,,'ion; .nd Oyama. H< Olll'Y'"Y 0/
15- latour, 11', Hal" Nt'VtT lin-" Mod",", 12.
16. Morguli •• nd s..g.o.     196.
I]. a.",h,-, "Why Sy>tem,?" 70.
For.n extended rehemol of t he "n<ocyb<mt'lic po>,hum.n: ..., CL"u, ""'I!r",na"
19. Leroi-Gourh.n. c;.,lur< an.! S/,«d" St;q;lor. T,e/mil> alld Tiffl'. vol, " 1"11, Fa"11 of
2 0. H.yl"" My Molher IVa,,, umrpul<r. 'J</-&>.
11. Ibid .• 280.
'-1. Ibid,
"J. Luhm.nn, "Wh., h Communic.t ion?" 100; or igin:ti empha,i.,
'4. For the fun de.'e!opment of ,hi, line of t hought, ... I'.von Thomp>on, Mi",/ i"
"5- Luhm.nn, Soaal   9' OUr emph.,i,.
,6. Von Foe,,"'r, 'On Comtr uc!ing, Reol j,y: 11S.
"1. V"" Foe,,"'r, "Ethic. ODd Second-Ordor Cyb<met ic>," J<ll.
,,8. s... Wolfram. A New KinJof&i<"",.
'9. s... Kun,,""il. "ReA«tjon. on Sk'l'h<n Wolfram'. A. Nrw Kind of&i<11«."
J<l. Von P"""",,-, "Cyb<metia of Epi>temology: 'JO.
J'. Silb.w"in and     "ne s..." h for Ontologieol  
]2. Hd)' Ie>, My Molh" Wm" Compuler. J<l.
JJ. Von P"""",,-, "L...., of Fo.m."
J..!. V 0, 010. "A Cakulu. for Self-Keference:
Interview with Heinz VOll Foersta
Ju/y 20, 2001, Pescmlcro, Californ ia
family in Vienna
Bm" Clarke: I ",anted 10 ad YO'" vcry   your playful ... a),
of pUlling P"'jes>;oNal togeiller. Did )'ou nlwaJS ""';1. tllal way"
Heinz von Foe"'er: I think my answer is that I' m from Vienna, At the time I
wa, oorn, at the turn of the century, Vienna wa, so muhicuhural---fabulous
in medicine, in architecture, in an and painting and drawing. Ernst Mach and
people like Ihal came from Vienna, My family belonged to Ihis "'hirlwind of
people. jI,·ly fat her was an architect with the electric industry bm had lot, of
frienm in malhematics and My mother came from an anistic famil y.
Her people were dancers, painters., sculptors. poets, and I was .Iinle kid tossed
into thi' bunch of different people who met .t th. home of my parent'. My
grandmother kept a kind of .. Ion whe .. people from different univer .. , mel.
Th. act .. " Ele.nor Du.., rame to Ihe hou..,.
Marie Lang. She publi,hed Ihe first European journal on women', liberation,
and ,he was IMrefore known all owr Europe.
Did Illey h".., til. '''/frag' ;5Sul'--lhe wo'"en', suffrage n"" .. ""m   in
III. ninelemlll cenl"'y"
They w ... not directly members of il. My grandmother founded something
which (ame from the Brilish suffrage move men t ... Ih • ..,ttlement,. for poor
people. And my mother .nd some of her friends founded one of tho.., ..,nle-
m.nts in Vienna. So when r was a liule boy, Slaying wilh my grandmother,
' ining under her gigantic desk with big legs. I had m)'little (hair there. and
Ihen all the ladi"" .rgued aoout philosophy, women', laoor, .nd the right. of
women. So a. a kid [was familiar wilh Ihe po[iti(a[ and the culi ural problem,
which an", in a society.
Un<[" Ludwig
[n many cases are victim. of ",manties. They are not awa .. of what
Ihey a .. saying. My role is to a ",manti< cleaning boy. who come, out with
a big broom.'
Thai W"5 Wingrn.triM', point.
To ,weep Ihe pointi'" "rt'"Mrnt. off rhe ""gr.
Exactly. You ",e, [ wa.a Wingenslein "i<lim when [was nineteen or twenty. [
Ihink [ knew the T",ct,wlSby he.rt. ...
Now ore you rc/"led 10 Wiltgen'trin!
Yes, [am related di,tantly.
You /'''''' " cou,;n ""mea Wittge",trin .
Yr<, my grandmother married t"'(e. And from her first marriage Ihere are
child .. n that are relaled direcdyto Wittgen.tein. [knew Uncle Ludwig when I
was.ooutelevenor tw"h·e. [Ihink I can even localize the I;me when I mel him.
""Iy mother was a Yery good friend of hi. ';'ter, Margarethe. They we .. wry,
"ery do..-. I was with h .. v;,iting Aunt'" largarNhe, and a young man Came in.
He asked me, "Heinz, what would you like to become when )"ou are grown up?"
Now [ had just passed a wry crucial examination. [wanted to get oul of grade
school and go imo Ihe grmna,ium. Wittgen'tein a,ked me whal I would like
to become. and [ said [ would lik. to be a Naturforscher [sciell1i,t ]. To me that
"'" a combination ofFridtjo" Nan..-n and Curie. He said. but then
you have to know • lot. I said. but I know a lot. [ just p ...... d the examination.
And then he said, you know , lot, but you don' t know-how righl you are.
I Solid, what? I don' t know how nghl l am1This was my first encoulller with
Uncle Ludwig.
Lateran [bec.medeeply invoh'ed in Ihe Tmct<l1us. And the .. was,nephew,
• real nephew of Ludwig'. by Ihe name of Karl. who also knew the T",a"w,
by hean: "Heinl., can you tell me proposition 6.2.j?" I said, "Of COU"", that',
an easy   es, but Heinz what about 7.11" ... I wa, re.lly a
"Apologies.ladi .. and gentlemen: what you saying is all wrong. According
10 proposition 1.7 in Ihe Traclal", .. . Ihal is the c ..... " Thoy said. «Poor Heinz.
whal con we do with youl"
Luhmann and Maturana
of yo"r pap .... , dril'fM by iMl"rmiorls YO" rcrei.."d!
In mosl (ases;t was Ihe consequence of an ;m·italion. either to wrile a paper or
10 giw a ledure. Ilried to strike a balance. 10 giw a paper people should enjoy.
I don' l want 10 lalk gibberish Ihat nobody undersland •. Who are Ihrse I"'0pl.
and whal are Ihoy inlerested in and why di d Ihey in\'ile This i, whall a,k
myself11 .. I. and Ihen I sit down and say. what can I leU
A, it was wilh Ihe Luhmann Ihing, you su.' They were all academi" . I
wanted 10 do Iwo Ihing'. Number one, ewn if you are not a sociologisl, you can
sa)" "ery 10Ugh things aboul sociology which .re nol ea,y 10 dige" and which
are nol being observed, ewn b)' Ihe sociologisls Ihem",lw,. The other Ihing i,
thai you can mah Ihem laugh. So I had Ihe tlow .. bouquet- Ihe mathematics
for afterward.
I. it "'Sf 10 gel a ""'gim/toollqlle/?
Of course. if you are a profl'5SiollaI magician, you can produce them. It is no
problem. I was in fact looking forward 10 Ihat moment : to see whal will be on
Ihrse professors' facr, when I produce Ihal tlower bouquet.
Now were Ihesr Lul",,,,,,,, 's rolleaglll'5i
I Ihink il wa, the whole facult y of Ihe University of Bielefeld and Ihe members
of Ihe rrsearch organizalion Ihal celebrated Luhmann's retirement. So il was
",ostly hi gh academia collffled there.
Did)"" hm'e ","ch imemdi"., wilh Luhma"" oW!" )"" ... 1
No, nol al all. Luhmann him",lf corre'ponded a 101 with me. H. visiled me;
h. was her. himself, silling on thi' chair; and he was wry interesled in me
l>e<:ause he knew Heinz undersland, aUl opoie,is. And he wanted 10 aniculate
aUlOpoiesi, for social lheory. And I always lold him, "Be "ery careful. you wiU
'IeI' on Maiorana, loes. The mo,1 sensitive things, maybe Ihe .. are already
some ,welling' on hi' BUll know ver)",,·ell. In faci I was pre.-
ent when Varela and MalUranJ inwnted Ihe notion of aUlOpoiesi. and wrole
Iheir lirsl paper. When I left Chile. I lOok thai paper. which was nO! really
completely wrinen, and wilh one of my students we fini,hed il up so thatlhe
Spangli'h be<am. English. [eYen wrot. illio Ihal pape., "w. thank Heinz "on
Foerster "rry much for the edito.ia[ help,"'
IVrll. 111m', 011/)" riglll! Now 1 C<lm. imo 'Y'IeI'" IIIeor)" a coupl. of   I dill
a ... mi"or 01 Cornell 1"'1 smllm,.,. wilh D<,villlVelli>l"1')". n",1 " .. I,limell a 101 of
Lullmall". A",1 III", 1 srlirfl"'liialki"g Lu/,mam, wil/' ",me of m)' lileral"re  
... ic"ce frienlls. m,,1 IIIey'" Marur""a m,d Vard"
Tha!". th.lwo diredions.
Ali<I I'm Ir)";"g ro "",1,,,1<11111 why-w/,ar i, .heir prablc", w;lh Lu/",,,,""!
Their proM.m wilh Luhmann is Ihey [MalUrana and Varela] do nol wallilo
ha\'. aUlopoi .. si, appli.d 10 ><>cia llheory, Thi' is juST. pe.sonal idios}lluas}'.
They would likr 10 keep autopoie,i, >oldy for biological discussion o. biologi -
Bul Malurmm ""d Varda "",n "Iso highl)" sociall)" moti''a/rll a",1 ",,,ke IIIdr OW"
<'1/,;.."1 .. "1,,,,,.,,1, 0" .he basi' of .
Panicuiarly MalUrana. H .. doesn'l want hi' idea, .,..n being m .. ntioned by
someon • ..I",
Well. thr rill i, 0111 oflhr bag 11011'.
Changing S<><i a[
[ Hew In th .. German cybern.tics society meeling in Kurembe.g. ' So [ said,
going ow. [can Ihink or dTram 3 paper up the Hight. With eighteen
hou .. between San Francisco and Frankfun. il 'IJ be ea,y for me to wriu up lhal
pape •. Wh.n I was ,ilting in the airplane. I .ealized [ had nOl used my G ... -
man for tw .. ntyy.a ... and [ had no id .. a whal to do about it. So I wa, writing
that paper for th .. German cybernetic,; society t h. whol .. way. Wh.n [ arrived
th ... e, [took mysc.ibbled things out and went 10 th. <onf ..... nce. It was in th.
Meiste .. ingrr Hall ... a "ery la.g. .. room with about two tnousand
propl. o. something like that. So [ stan .. d to Trad and [ couldn' t: at the momenl
[ >1000 on th .. l .. " .. ,", they switched on four thousand wdtls ofliglllS because it
was of course a tele'"ised affai •. So I wa, completely blind to th .. audi .. nce. Under
th .. t.em .. ndous four-kilowatt lamps, sw .. al was running down my fo ••,
the was unbearabl., and th .. n [ tri.d to inv .. nt my pape •. But apparently
[succeeded. Wh .. n [ was through, [had to gel into fresh air: I couldn't stay in
that room anymore. So [walked out, sitting on the ,id .. walk, and a gent!.man
10 n ue( ClARK( ANO Hf l NZ VOM fOfRSHR
came running up 10 me. "Do you know what they were saying!" I 'kIid. "No,
I couldn't]isten to mystlf; it was too hOI." "They said, 'You'w changed social
theoryi' " ! said, "I hope 10 Ih. better," He wem on. "You ha". to come to
conference,." The firm Siemen, had organized a program for establi'hing aU
the foreign workers, whether from Turkey, from Romania, who came to work
in Germany,
TI,e Gastarbeiter,
Pool, for the children. enlenainmenl for the grownups.. etc. etc. He said, "You' ve
changed <lXial theory, You have 10 tell them what to do about the Turks in
Germany, " ! said, ' Very easy- imparl Turkish girl.:
"Object" Toke n. for (Eigen-)Behaviors"
Immediately the next da)' ! took the Irain to Gene"a, there to pre .. nt this story-
obj«t, which W.1S to cdebrate Piaget'. eightieth birthday.' So J prestntal that
,tory. It produced the greatest uproarof antagonism I haw e"er ,eceived. When
! fini >hed with "thank you very much." I onlycou!d hear   They were really
jumping at me. "What"' .. mathemati" you hav<' prestnted here has nothing to
do with malhemati,,; in fact it ha, nothing to do with anything! J don't know
what you are doing herel Where did you com. from, from Mars?"
Well, J wa, in a very good mood owrall .... Whenever! got ,ome of the
broad.ides ,hot again.t me, J had a funny amw ... So everybody laughed and
nobody wa, angry. It wa, a very enterlaining hour of argumentation, where
people said to me, "Thi' is utter non",n .. !" And! said, "Why do you say uti .. ?
Why don't you just 'kIy non",n .. ?V
/ (lm["'5 I [OIm,1 it diffif1lit going.
Thi. is a very difficult paper.
Tf,e fim tim, / reail ii, ireaJlyl",d "0 ....
It', utled)' incomprehensible.
Bm I I,m ... com, i>.lck to it rl'Cfmly, m,1l rI,;, i, nowafter ,wdyi"g ' yste"" th'ory
and ""ding Luhman" aud realling wille V"rr/".
It was Varela who ",id thi' i, my most importanl paper.
/Ihi"k I su wf,y he ,..oulll say beca",,, it comprf'5SN rf,e argument abOlIl
cirallarity almo,t as fior down mlr couM '/0.
Prffisdy, y ....
Sc lei me Iry 10 describe your arguJllem.
Ve,., wonderful. 1 would be ddighted.
\\'ell. if 1/" II,."",U'     j, organiZiHio,"IIl1y do,,",l. and lhi, j, Ihe case for )'0"'
"lid for "" alld for all nerl'Ou,      
The," how i, illhalwua/l "gree 0/1 rhe world oU/'ide of U,? Siner "",'" bolh inl'fnl-
i/lg ir for ourml'f' "lIlile rime. A",I whcr,.." in a "",/WolI,,1 app'O<leh. Oil' ....,u/il
<II)" Ihe world i, full of objed, "/ld Ihey present liI"",e/ve, 10 u, a",/ we ';mply ""
"WII" of rilrir rxi,le/lce br",me o",r "en'ous ,ys,,,m, representlil.m 10 'IS or gi'T
Ihe obiecl, 10 us. Ihrn Ih,.,..,', '"0 problem. BUI;f J""u'rr going 10 br rigorou, "boul
"can,lrue/i,;" epi<leJlwlogy. Ih," )'Ou ,hould 1101 ,,,'k "bou, objed,. Sreallse we
don 'I know Ihe",.
Sc ii', all effort 'i"'ply 10 ,hift Ih. ,wahul"ry of ""' diJCU«ioll. arId so lei "' <IIy
Ihll' objed' p'"f5rnl "10k"" for "K<""brl,a'-io's.·· ... hich wuan rs'abll,h.
I think you understood it "'ry well. J\" never gotten such a good report about
that paper! 1 do think there is one poilll missing in your story, but it is only
missing in your >lory and not in your knowledge. This is that we are both in
our world, both in each othdsworld. Vou are in mine,and 1 am in your world;
therefore we establish our eigenbeha,ior for each other. And "'e rna)" not agr .. ,
but "" are caught in the same loop.
That', rhe Iwo '>IIroj",,; '<>gr,lIcr.'
If I do that with myeyegiaose.r--J n'-'er pok .. them in my eyes, I put them
properly on the no,"" I find my pocket ",here the eyegiasse. go. This is a very
stable beh"'io," Piag .. published a crucial paper making the key point that ",e
can understand thing< onl)" by handling them, by moving them, by moving
our own body.
Righi. Or ..... "alize .lIm our       i, op...,m;lIg ill I""" of the", fe,,'back
loops.   so )"011 " ... d rhe (Grlft"","ion of the I....,.
Exactly. Ther.'s • circul.rity. Piaget'. central point was that )"ou need the mo·
torium to understand the ",nsorium. If you only look, )·ou "'ill not under -
>land. Vou h"'e to touch, you h"'e to moYe. "nd then you will understand.
Or grasp--that', a good metaphorical 'tatrment. You haw to gra,p things in
order to grasp them .. .. There are easier papt"rs than thatl
The Magician
Did you get the papt"r on Luhmann?
y .... ... "How Rwmi", /s eo",,,,uniwtioll!"
Y .s. it', a lillie bit que ... My problem "·a. that aU the great German professor>
were .illing in this gigantic room. all with beards, and they " ... re such carica·
tures I couldn' t belie", mye)'es. There was not a .ingle .mile to be ....,n. And I
had to do something to produce a smile from o"e of the .. guys. I u .. d to be •
magician when 1 was a kid.
Oh. I .....
And so J puUe<I out a bouquet of flowe". '
Weil. ,!,," ,,,,,k ... '''IS''. For ins","", ill )""" I"'P'" "0" Sdf-Org""izing Sysl"'''
and Their Em'iron",."'';'" rou begin will, ,wo par"Jox ....
Do ),ou Ihink lit"l is Ih. magid<1n /Otlch!
Exactly. And the interesting thing is that the magician i. doingjust the opl'",ite
of what most ]><'Ol'le think- hiding something. No. the magician i. making
thinss so de .. that ""erybody can ... what is goi ng on. And that i. th. miracle.
You must let them see the mirade. making it.o com'incing that absolutely
nothing is hidden. nothing is under the table, everphing is on the table, and
that makes the whol. thing very magical.
Not ..
t. A, <"Videnced. for imtdnc<. in ,'on Foe ... !., • ..... r "Mol«ul .. Ethology:
2. '"Th. Luhmann thi ng": "Kommunik..t ion un<! Gn..J IKh..ft, Au!orenkoUoquium fliT
NilJ •• Luhm.nn: , o",,·ohy program.t the Univer,i'y 01 Bieler.ld on l'<bru.TY
S. '5I9J. org.miled br Di rk Jla<o<UT.nd Pet<'f Weing.>rt for lunmmn', ' i"y-fifth
birthJ'r .nd r<tir=tent ... which run ~ O < ' f   '   g.> "0 the fifO' p'....,n .. 'ion. the "''''Y
cited in not. 7 below.
J. V,,,,Ia, Mdturan., :mJ Uribe, "Autopo;.,.u."l'he.rtickcontain •• n ockno",kodgm<'1lt
th ..... d ... folio",,, "The . utho .. wi'" to .. pr ... th<ir gfOtitud. to th. m.mbe"wf
the Biologi<>l Computer LaboTdtory of tho Uni ,·."..ity of 1 Ui noi .. UII"m •• partie ul.,ly
to Ri<hard Heinz Von F""r>tcr.l'.ul E. \\''''ton .nd Kenneth L Wilson. for
their <ont i n uou. "'KOur .&"",en I. di 5<w.:OOn, •• nJ help in d.ri fring .nd ,Impm ing
t he pr""nt.1tion of our no' ion> • ('93).
4. Von Foef>lITrefe" 10 lhe kct.ur< he pl'e on March , S. '97l. OI lhe Fifth Congrno
of ,heGerman Soci<ty of C)'hem"fa. 1.leT publi.hOO •• "Cyb<rn .. ico ofEpi>lemol-
ogy .• In Ihi. inl..-view he conI!.:""" ,hall ri p .bro.d I" ilh Ih. one Ihat look him 10
  th ree ye." laler (,..., "",xl noIe).
50 Von F""" .. r. "Obi«"'" A foot nolOlo Ih.,ilk re-.d>. "Thil <ontribution wou origi-
nally pr<'j»red for . nd pr...,n,...! 01 til< Uni ... r>ily of Ge"",'. on lune 29. '976. on
o«.,ioo of le.n     80th binhd.y" ( ,61 ).
6. A <irrr. of 1"10 bit ing e .. h alh",', .. il .. iUU!lr.l.,n from "Obi«": in
UMml"ndilIg Und""r."dillg. 267,
7. -Wito,,', I'id nolO: Heinz >on P"", "or hand> NikJ .. l.uhmann copi'" of ,h, ..
• rt Kko >r« i.lly bound for t hi. 0« •• ic n: .. he do",uo •• bouq of 110",." 'ppe'"
magically out of thin .ir.nd Nilli. Luhm.nn th.n" him" (,'on I'oe", ... "!-'or NikLu
Luhmann' in (j"d..,..,'andillK Umk"lallJillg. JOB). In the ><cond Luhmann fold ..
.. Ill< Heinz >"On fuenler Archiv, In"i,uI fu, 7.eilg ... hichte. Un"e"i"l W. in. in
oddilion 10 Iho inform".,n .boullh. AUloronkolloquium <ilN in note I .bo,' ••
t h<fo ;". ,«<ip' for SlJ.S9. Ja'N la nu.ry 4. ' 5>' 13. 10 'he Hou", of Magi<. San
Franci>co. C:t.lifom"'-. presumably for lhe magic.1 bouquet. Thank> toAlhe" M ulr.r
of the Heinz ,'on I-"""",.r Archiv for hi. ho.pi .. li,y.
Heinz von Foerster's Demons
The Emergence o/Second-Order Systems TIII:,ory
At it. inception the discou",", of cybernetic ... mered on the du>!er of topic.
gi"en by the initial tide of the famed Macy Confe .. nc." ten of which occurrro
bet",,,,,n 1946 through 195}, "Circular Can>ality and Fee<lback Mechanisms in
Biological and Social System,. " The interdi",iplinary group here .... mbled
brought together philosophi cally minded scientific polymaths and pioneers of
electronic computation and information theory, such as Warren McCulloch,
Norben Wiener. John von Neumann. and Claude Shannon. with anthropo-
logical social scienti,!! such .. Mead and Gregory Bateson. A student
of the Vienna cirde trained in mathematics, physic., and electrical engineer-
ing, Heinz ,'on Foerster in 1949 landed newly ."i'·ed in the United Stat,", and
... mewhat miraculously in the midst of thi' uncommon aggregation, in the
middle of il> run, and. despite minimal proficie ney in English, was appointed
(by McCulloch) the secretary of the Macy Conference proc""ding'. A year
J.ter and in the inAuential wake of Norbert Wiener' , 1948 book, Cybm,elio, or
Control and Cotl!ltllln;mr;'m in the Animal   AJilchine, von Foerster sugg'"'ted
changing the name of the MacyConferencrs to simply "Cybernetics." and his
suggestion was adopted.'
The Macy Confe .. nces represent th. high point of the first interdisciplinary
.ynthesis through which cybernetic. came forward as a met.diKipline, bringing
physical, mathematical, and engin""'ing conceptsof entropy, information, and
feedback toward an integrated study of complex mechanical. computational.
biological, psychic, and social systems. HoweYer, in the )'ears after the Maey
Confe .. nc., dosed up shop, this cybernetic syot h .. is gradually splintered into
noncommunicating specializations. Broadly considered. it diverged sharply
back into subject/object dichotomy and Cartesian dualism- what could be
caUed "hard" and "soft" camps. The former monopolized it. resourc,"" hoarded
its grants, and redirected the mathematical and engin""ring sidesof cybernetics
toward Arlillcial Intelligence (.<1), rooolics, computer "ience, and command-
control -communicalion. lechnologie •. To its nedit, Ihi' is why you now have
a computer on your desk and an iPhone in your pocket. Thelaner camp, ofien
loosely identified wilh the work of Gregol)' Bateson, graduaUy gathered up the
cognilive and philosophical in'ighl' of cy],.",et ics toward matters of manage-
rial and social 'yslems, psycholherapy, and epislemology. Few person, ]",ides
von Foerster could be said 10 ha,'e had a foot in oolh camp', and no other vi -
,ion of a holi'ti<: cybernetics was forlhcoming to 'plit the difference belween
Ihem. Inslead, Ihe abandoned middle ground wa, ewntually filled up wilh a
multifarious cult ural mythology centered on celebr.lory and cautionary images
of the cyborg, a throretical figure built up from \"ariou,ly real and imaginary
mergers ofbiolog;..1 bodies and electronic brains,
Twenty )'ears afler th.lapse of the Mac)" COnferenc ..... however, yon Foersler
would consolidate Ihese alternative cybernelic lrends wilh Ihe lurn loward
what he call ed "second-order   In a clusler of papers wrillen by the
mid-1970S---"Notes on an Epistemology for li"ing Things: "On Constructing
a Realil),," "Cybernetics of Epistemology," and "Objects: Tokens for (Eigen-)
Beha\'io,,"- yon Foe"ler "atalyzed new thinking aboul the deel"r cognitive
implications of "circular causalily. · Es.sentially, ,'on Foerster Iweaked Ihe en-
gineering di"ourse of positiYe and negative feedback loward the recognition
of self-reference as an ineluclable form of ol"ration in 'y'lems in general, and
panicularly .t the basi' of anything worlhy of being called cognition, whether
the 'y,tem at hand wa, nalural or Ie<:hnical. The crucial conceptual shift wa,
a mo,'emelll from first -order cybernetic. allemion 10 homeostasis as a mode
of autonomou, self-regulation in mechanical and informat;' system. to con-
cepts of self-organilalion----.,specially as Ihal notion captured Ihe apparent
self-ordering and self-regulation of bodies and minds-----and 10 self-reference
and autology a, the ab,tract logical counterpart, of recursive operalion, in
concrete and worldly syslem,.
Befilling hi' adolescent apprenticeship as an amateur magician, Heinl von
Foerster's professional papers, many oflhem .. ading lexl, for conference .udi -
fIlCes, in addition to Ihe u,ual Kient ific diagram, and malhemalic.1 equalions.,
are comistently peppered wilh amusements, punles, and paradoxe,.' Deliv-
by • mildly manic diKursiw pe,wna---al times one almost """ the baggy
,Iet'w, of Ih. sorcerer, cloak flapping- I he .. papers are intensely focused on
entertaining audienCe< Dilen assumed to be ' keptical about their propo>ition"
For scientific papers they are remarkably high rhetorical performances. Seri -
ous argum.nt, about mailers ofbiologicaJ com putation, 'yslem/environment
int errelalion, and perceptual and cogniti,'e construction typically turn on a
rhetoric that them. as it w .... on a magician', stage and
presto! turn, thorn into visible ,hap<'>, Yet the discursive style of this prestidigi-
tating i, more than a manneri,m. It emOOdi .. the "natural of
cybernetics itself.
With von Foerster'. writing', cybernetic begins in
project of taking itself as its own object. With hi. turn. maUers
of <ircular form and operation break out of philosophical and literary treat-
ment (as • .. and imo scientific discu .. ion (as "recursion"). Amazing
though it may = m. one discO\'ers that whereas circularity i, death (by infinite
regre,, ) to srrucrure" it i, lif. (by autonomou, sdf-regulation) to   Von
Foerster' , work renders paradoxical propositions, recursi,'e form •. and
referential operations a\dibble at once to rational and aesthetic, scientific and
literary view. A major and early instance of von Foerster', rhetorical persona
discursivdy emOOdying 'lbern"ic tenet. regard ing recursion. epistemological
paradox. and .. If-refeTen<< i. "On Self-Organizing System. and Their En"iron-
mems," delivered in 1959 and fi rst published in 1960. Thi ' important paper
figure. prominemly in the work of .ystem, thinke rs as di'parate as Henri Adan.
Francisco Varda. and Niklas Luhmann and anti,ipate' chaos theory by two
decades with it. seminal and exhilarating presemation of the "order-from-
noi"," principle.
Written a decade before th. self-referential or neoqbernetic turn in his own
work. however. this e""y still resides in the milieu of first-order cybernetics, It
is still large with the h.uristic extension of Shan non's information   as a
relay bet"""n energy and information; physics and biology; thermod)·namical.
li,·ing. and computational system •. Ne"enhel,,,, "On Self-Organizing System'
and Their En\'ironmems" prefigures "on Foerster', later Jldpers' epistemologi-
cal turn toward mattors of cognitivo recursion, ill sYllch with the simult aneou,
emergence of the con«pt of biological .utopoie,i, in the early 1970'. for which
discursive ... ·.nt "on Foerster was literaUy the institutional midwife,) "On Self-
Organizing S)"tems and Their Emironments" i, centered on a pre-autopoietic
concept of and the po"ibility of conceptualizing it through
the mathematicalthrory of communication a, the emergence of order from

But to get to this '''P'''ition, it' audience must first proce .. at some length
two conceptual paradoxes, two "faUaci .. " concerning the definition of
organizing system,. both of which are subjected to mock deplo)ments of re-
ductio ad ab,urr/a", argument,. Tying propaedeutic rhetorical paradoxes
together with the .. say' s subSf<juent work-up of . ntropy, information. and
redundancy in the interrelation, of self-organizi ng system, and th. ir en"iron-
"",nl, i, Maxwell's Ikmon, a s<ientific thought-experimental entity custom-
made for yon Foerster', conceptual whim,y, A preliminary of Ihe de-
mon's d,,'elopmenl from its c .. ation in 186] t,. its return performanu in '-on
Foerster's 19.\9 paper will allow us 10 measure the apm"", of von Foerslers ap-
proprialion ofthe demon for syslems theory, as well aSlhe poetic justice of Ihi'
coUaboralion of s<ientific The "magical" or daemoni. 'ide of von
Foerstor, rhetoric- Ihe ,ignificance of paradoxe, and other mota-logical
performanc .. lhrough which he utters his afguments-----<an then be more dearly
fa"tored into Ihe neocybernelic concepl' and methods of hi' lal .. cognitive
papers. Von Foerster's importance for and imprim on Ihe social ')"Stem, theory
of Nikla, Luhmann wililhen emerge wilh particular darity.
Protocybernetics in M""weU'.
AI a conf .. entitled "Self-Organizing Sysle ms," ,-on Foerster bq:in' a pa-
per entitled "On Self-Organi'ing Systems and Their Em'ironment'" with Ihe
following thesis: "There are no such Ihings as >elf-organizing   A, we
noted above, Ihi. i, Ihe fim of the two paradoxe, Dr, more precisely, mock fal -
in this paper. Wilh an obviou, allusion 10 Ihe classical role of Maxwell',
Demon as a challenge 10 thr of entropy in dosed physiGlI 'ystfmS, he
ask., ironicall y, whether "t here i, nol a ",eret purpose behind Ihi' meeting 10
promote a con.piracy 10 dispose of the Stcond Law of
Maintaining ironical posture, with Ihis remark >un Foersler implicitly plays
de"i]'s ad,'ocate to Maxwell'. Demon, a. scientific fame was first
t'Slablished as a ,u<CfS5ful conceptual amagonislto Ihe "heal death" scenarios
spun off from Ihe ",cond law by William Thomson, Hermann >un Helmholtz.,
and many olhe ... Cla"ical thermodynamics d«lared Ihal physical organiza-
tion, the orderliness of malerial/en"getic 'y'lem" .pomaneously deteriorales
owr lime (Ihe rule of entropy) and Ihal its re'loralion must always be paid for
with new contribulions of energy. If autonomous self-org,mization can occur
wilhoul energic input from Dr entropic outpulto Ihe environment, in Maxwell',
famou, word., th" would ind.-ed "pick a hole in the 2nd law." So \'on Foerster
set, up hi' firsl paradox by placing the nOlion of self-organizing 'yslem, "'ithin
• thermodrnamicframe, ostensibly like Ihe hermetic enclosure Maxwell used in
,867to circumscribe Ihe en"ironmental relation, of the abstrJct or hypothetical
system into which he first placed hi ' thought-e:xperimental demon.
Maxwell'. Ikmon began a, a practical conceit. In Ihi' scientific aUegory, the
daemoni" agent personifies Ihe conceptual manipulation of scientific model.
of ph}"Sical'YSiems. Viewed historically, Ihe demon began as a s<ientific fiction
but has eyolvN into a supple theoretical fact with real .. s for the
deyelopment of modern " ience. The demon' •• uccessful run has reotN on it.
conducting thought in fruitful dirfCtions. And fow heuristic entitie,
from the annal. of <eientific modeli ng ha>'e been a. thoroughl), anthropomor-
phiZ<'d-- not jmt brought to conceptual life but .1", endowN with a narrative
career----'ils Maxwell' , Demon. For instance, fo r ,.wral decades around the
mid-twentieth cent ury. the demon was declared to be dead---that i •• to be a
dead scientific metaphor, no longer able to generate plausible chaUenge. to the
.le<Cond law of thermodynamics, Fortunately for the demon. cybtrnetics reYived
it for heuristic dut y in information theory and computer science. and it can
.ti ll be sightN today in odd corners of both S(ientific and popular ,,"lture.' The
demon is clearly more than an academic' or cultural antique: it i. the
8\'is of Victorian thermodynamic •.
On December n. ,867, Maxwell wrote to fell ow physicist Pet .. Guthrie Tait
with a way "to pick . hole" in the se<:ond law of thermodynamics, that "if two
things are in cont.ctthe hotter cannot take heat from the cold .. without external
That i,., when physical 'ystem, are left to themsel,'.,. one always 00-
",,,",,rs heat to mow (thermo-dynamic. ) from holter to colder bodirs. Maxwell
inwntN the demon to "·Y""'. in thoory at leas t. this entropic drift of things.
To ... torr enrrgy to a dosed ,y.tem i. j1'IMntially to .. storr it, if the system i.
then openN, to the environment of that . )":>t'''' a. wtll.' A. fi rst materialized
in Maxwell', I.ner to Tait. the demon take. the form of an agency
within a ",.le<! and panitionN chamber containing a gas: "Now let A & B be
t""" y,",,,,I, divided by a diaphragm and let them contain .la, tic moleculrs in
a ,tate of agitation. "
Drspite their temperature differential. among the molt'Ollrs in both cham-
bers "there "'ill be ,-eloci1i .. of all magnit ud ... It is Ih. random di'tribution
of molreular velociti . ,., together with the partitioning ( CD) of th. total.}"tem.
thai proyide. the openi ng for an intelligent agent to fix the molfCular loltery.
"Now conceiye a finite being who knows the path. and ",locities of all the
1ll0lfCuies by .imple inspection but ",ho can do no work, except to and
close a hole in the diaphragm by mea", of a ,lide without mass." Supplementing
the d),namical sys"m al the microlevel. the d.mon famously let' only hotter
molfCulrs from B go into A. whe .. it is already hOI. and only colder onrs from A
go into B. where it i. already cold. bywhich stratagem the second law is ,-iolatN
in that rhe hOlier "ts,,1 rakts hear fro", the cold .. wilhOlu ex/ernal "gen<y. The
demon works on the   of the '),5tem but (according to the tolal conceit
of Ihe thought e><periment ) without adding any energy 10 the system. Merely
by the intelligent "'rting of 5tati>!ical variation, in alr.ady .. getic particles,
Maxwell',   10'
• TIl.,mo<!ynamic
TIlousnt -  
the demon re"erse. the probable drift toward thermal equilibrium and, so the
legend goes., sa" .. the world from the 'pe<:ter of entropy.
The demon'. c .. ..,r has taken it from the dosed .ystem. abstracted from
on"ironmental contingencies idealized by dassic,,1 thermodynamics to the mod-
.Is of and autopoi",ic system. founde<l on ,'ariably open and
dosed boundaries and structural couplings of.y ... m. to each other and to
their en"ironm.nt., relationshipscrucial in cyb"rnetic model. of the interfaces
among physical, technological, biological, and social.y"em,. As a figure ac-
companying the postdassic.1 d"'dopment of t h. entropy concept, Maxw.ll's
Demon now mediatr. between the rralnl5 of energy and information- dassiGiI
thermodynamics., quantum physics, and cybernetics. As. broader figure of.y'-
tem functions, as an observer and operator of inner and outer boundaries, tho
demon can also mediate the distinction< ""lOng system" a matter increasingly
imponant tosystems theory in a postdassical conceptual mili.u where measures
of energ), ( E), thennodynamic entropy (Sl, and "information .ntropy· (If) are
differentiated and coordinated.
In panicular, in its progress from Victorian thermodynamics to contem-
porary syst.m, theory, on. of the demon' s signal accomplishments has been
to conduct the from the absolute bondage of thermo-
dynamic closure in material -energetic .ystems to the contingent libtr.tion
of an informatic or statistical vinuality, in which .",ironmental openness to
energi ... nd sign' i, coupled to the operational or organizational dosnre of
sdf-organizing and autopoietic systems. In M.xwr ll's original conception, the
demon i, the int.rnal obser",r of an isolated physical sy,tem, an idealilfd ther-
rnodPlJtnical system with a dosed or "adiabatic" outer boundary. B)' definition,
such systems perfe<:tly exdude thei r environm"nts. In the original case, prior
to the arriyol of the demon, thi. ,",du.ion also ensured the ..... mual thermal
equilibration of ,-e,sel. A and B, the ,Iurring of their heat diff.rential, and
thus the submission to the second law, What openness thi. model
40 nUe! CLARK!
was strictly internal: the hoi. in partition, which the d.mon
or dru.«! to allow ",Ie<,te<! to pass from v""d to the
other. Yet it was prfCisely by parritioning Ih. dwmbrr ,..ith diaphmgm  
Ih", poking holr ill and so providing the demon with an internal
point to operate on the basis of its observations, that Maxwdl "pi<:ke<! a hoi."
in the cbs.sical idea of entropy in dosed 'ystems. I n Maxwell's
original demon scenario, that is, the external closure of the physical system is
wuntered by the demon's '"pacity to open and shut the m. mbrane
the " .... 1 .. Thm the demon', operations already anticipate<! the "open dosure"
of complex systems that go beyond th .. and use their
ooundaries to regulate wmm .. " (input/output ratios or perturbation!wm-
pen>ation rdations) with their em'ironment •.
Self.Organi,i ng Systems and Thei ' Environments"
Mock Falla .. )" J: There Is Such a Thing as a Sdf-Organuing Sy<frm
With his allmion to the semnd law at the beginning of "On Stlf-Organizing
System, and Their Environments," "on Foerster set. up his first paradox- "[
shall now prove the of .. If-organizing systems by redl/clio ",I
absurdam of the ",sumption that there is such a thing as a .. If-organizing 'ys-
tem"- by placing the notion of self-organiling 'ystems within the frame of
classical thermod)llamic wnmaints. Th.", indude "adiabatic ,hell" (,..,
below), aeros.s which no energy may pa ... Th. hermetic dosur. of this uni",r",
from any other the importance of envjrom'''''tal cw,u," in
the das.sical thermodynamic milieu. The uni,'erse of da"ical th .. modynamics
is dru.«! not only at the (ideallyl .. ale<! out .. boundari., of thermodynamical
systems, such., heat engines. but also insofar .. that itself, the envi-
ronment of all environments, is envisione<! as a dosed 'ystem. Von Foe"ter
frame<! hi' model of a .. If-organizing s)"5tem with th ... cia"ical thermody-
namic allusions to do",d partitionings of Mlng)". it seems, preci",ly to elicit
cenain systemic   to this form of That is. his essay unfolds
the repercussion' for .. If-organization for that process as
A"ume a finite uniwrse. U" as small or as large as you wish, which is
endose<l in an adiabatic shen which separates this fini te uni" .... from any
"meta-uni,· .. "," in which it may be immersed. A .. ume, that
in thi' uni,'erse. U,. there i, a dru.«! surface "'nich divides this universe into
Tho f!Mronmon,, 1 (IO'UfO
01. S.U-()rg"ni, ing Sy"om
two mutually   parts: the one part is completely occupiN with a
self-organizing syslrm 5" while the other part we may call the environment
E. of thi' self-organizing 'ystem: 5, & E" = U, ....
Undoubtedly, if thi s stlf-organizing system is permitted to do its job of
organizing itstlf for a while. its entrol'Y mu,t haw dffreased during
this time ... othe""i .. we would not call it a stlf-organizing system. but
just a mechanica.! ... or 3 thermodynamical . .. sy"tem. In order to accom-
plish thi .. the entropy in the remaining pari of our finilr uni ... r ... i.e. the
entropy in the environment must have inneased .. . otherwist the Second
Law of Thermodynamics is '''olated . ... th .. , tate of uni ... rse
will be more di>organized than before .. .. in other word, the activity of
the system wa, a di>organizing one. and we may justly ,ali such a system a
"di>organizing system."'
In thi' pa,sage ,'on Foemer play, fast and loose wit h. or rather mocks.
(L' the noncoincidelKe of the system 5. '5 selforganization with its "di>orga-
niling" of its o/her, the environment E., and {l ' the di,tinction betw..,n en-
ergy and information. That i,. for momen! he equivocate, between. on
the one hand, thermodrnamic entropy as th .. ",easure of >ome real rNuction
in th. sum of u",ble energy within 3 material system and. on the other hand,
entropy a, re<lefined in Shannon', information theory as a measure of the
{dis)order or formal (di,jorganization of any sysum, but p .. timlarly of mos-
",ge stru<Ctures (information) transmitte<l withi n communi,ation ,ysums. But
the equivocations .. mbedd. d in this supposed proof bring out the paradoxi,,1
pu nch Ii ne of von Foerster'. mock fallacy: distin,tion. are also indusi ,'e of
what they exdude. from the holistic peTSpe,ti,'e that stays attenti,'e to both
sysum and em'ironment, the uni,","r .. U, is compri""d by the ",uwnl inc/us/o"
of thest "two mutually exclu,i\'e parts": "In spite of thi' suggested proof of the
non-nistence of stlf-organizing systems, I to continue the uS<" of the
term 'self-organizing system,' whilst being aware of the fact that tni. term be-
comes meaningless, unless tne system is in dose contact witn an environment,
which PO''''''''' "mi/"ble ",erg} "Nd order, and witn wnieh our system is in a
,tate of [K"r[K"tual interaction, suen tnat it somenow manag .. to 'he' on the
e"l"'nses of tnis en" ironment. "
Von Foerster administers tnese bracing dose. of dassie.1 thfrmoo)'namics
and ftrst -order cybernetics., then, to put his aud ience's material -energetic feet
on the ground. To balance the bias toward information and the ",Iorization of
order taken as form. jllf''''''/ to self-organizing he insi't' on maintain-
ing conceptual nold on tne en"ironment, what Cary Wolfe calls "the pragmatics
of the 'outside.'"" and order" are characteristics panicularly plai n in
Ii"ing 'ystem, and in the environment' that ,ustain them, and the metaphorics
of this latter passage are more biological than phy'ical , Before the emergence
of far-from-equilibrium thrrmooynamic. and dynamical system, theory, con-
siderations of .. If-organization were t)'picoUy center..J on living 'ystems and
then extended, not so much to physical or chemical systems as to the biotic and
metabiotic natural 'ystems-nermus, p,ychic, and social---that ramify from the
evolution of eeU, and organ i,m, within material -energetic, thermodynamical
environments, Von Foer.lter's .. rious point r.mains indisprn.sable; No .}'Slrm
of any stripe can be adequately treat..J in the absence of the environment it
con>titutes for itselfby emerging as a 'ystem. The in .. parability of the 'y'tem}
environment dyad is a primary and pimt. 1 premiS<" of cybernetic thought ,
separating cybernetics [K"r se from the late-dassical paradigms of Victorian
thennoo}1lJmie5. To characterize the argument so far, "There issuch a thingas a
self-organizing system" is. Pllock s[K"aking, a paradox. Alt hough
eenain systems ,to self-organize, or tneir internal entropy, they do so
only in the pre .. nc. of conditions provid..J for r!S<"Where, by environments
that lend a nec .... ry other to the self of .. If-organization.
Mock 2: Thi, World /5 Only j" O"r IlIIaginalio"
The insrparability of the system/envi ronment dyad i, also the point of "on
Foerster's second gambit at the beginning of uO
Self-Organizing System,
and Their Environments." BUI thi s time he approaches it from a phil osophi-
cal rather than biophysical Yantage. From the side of the "5ubject" rather than
that of the "object, " he arranges a kind of Cart",ian litmus test for the reality
of the environment." For in its ftrst moment, all the Cogito can cognize i, it'
OW" existence, precisely .. a     capable of ... If-obser..-ation: "Perhaps one
of the oldest phil osophical problom, with whi ch mankind has had to live ...
arises when we. men, consider oursdves to 0., self-organizing 'ystem,. We may
insist that intro'p«tion doe. not !"rmit u, to decide whether the world as we
see it i. · .. al ,' or just a phantasmagory, a dream. an illu,ion of our  
What if Ihe only reality i. in fact the .. If in teTm, of which the mind carries
out its self-organization! If Ihat were the ca"" " my originallh .. i, ., .. rting the
nonsensicality of the conception of an isolated .. If-organizing system would
piliably collapse. I shall now proceed to .how the reality of the world as we see
il. by "dlldi" ,,01 "bsII,dll'" of the th •• is: this world i. only in our imagin.tion
and the only reality i, the imagining ' 1," " Or again (says von Foerster, honorary
cousin of Ludwig IVittgenstein) I ,hall now make. superannuated philosophical
conu ndru m----<l isa pp .. r! "
With thi ' buildup. von Foerster musters up one of the more famou, icons
in the visual rhetoric of cybernetic di",ou"e. In ord .. to probl.mati le the
solipsistic notion of the min,) a. "an iwlated self-organizing.ystem. ' \'on Foer-
ster diagram, a situation of ... If-referential ... h·", within ",I\·<'S--the Man with
the Bo,,-I .. Hat ("'"H). Th, "'BH imagine, that he i, a ... If-organizing 'ystem
wiThom aM ",viroM",,,,r.
Assume for the moment that I am the .uccessful business man with the
bowler hat ... , and I insist that I am the sol. reality. while everything else
'p",,'" only in my imagination. I cannot deny that in my imagination the ..
willap""ar prople. ",ientist •• oth ... uccessful busin""men, etc, as for in-
stance in this conference. Since I find th .... apparit ion. in many .. ,,,,,ct.
similar to m),,,,lf, I h,\'e to gram them the that they th.m .. h·" mar
insist thaI the sole reality and everything d .. i, only a concoction of imagination. On the other hand, they cannot deny that fanta.i ..
will 0., populated by prople-------<J.nd one of th.m may 0., I, with bowl .. hat
and e\'e'11hing!
With this we have dosed the cirde of our contradiction; If I ."um, th.t I
anI the sole reality. it turn. out that I am the imagination of somebody else,
who in turn a"um", Ihat hr i. the sole real ity. Of cour .... [since either of
the .. propositions is "absurd") this paradox is easil), re",lved. by postulating
the reality of the world in which we happily thrive. "
The X-ra), image of the Man with the Bowler Hat ostensibly depicts th.
ciassical solipsist-one who assem that whatever they ""rcei ... (here. tho ...
two gentlemen o\'er there) exists only imide their own mind and that. there-
fore. They are the only thing in existence. hen if idealist philosophies of the
tran",endental subject do not rule such notion, out. how,,'''. according to the
primary premise of '}'Stem. theory rehearsed in the first paradox. in the world of
44 aRUn ClARKE
Bowlor H.t (dr.WfI
by Gor.on P''').
real   the nonniSlrnce of an fnl'ironmrnt is not forthcoming. So
solip,ism is nol the real problem bUI rather a metaphor for a real propen'ity 10
conce ntrJle on th e 'ystem cone ept without mai nta ining sufficient consideration
of its neH"sary <counterpart. its environment. Or again--to be adequ.te to its
obj.-I, 'ysten" thought has 10 proc ... d from the full ,itu.tion constituted by
the ,ystem and its environment and the dynamic maintenan" ofthe boundary
that distingui,h .. them.
In the 1959 paper, then. "on Foe ... er use, the -'ISH to .. affirm Ihe proposi-
tion just established, to underscore again, from the 'ide of th. subject, the .. al
""i,tene. of the environment over against a too narrow interest in the 'ysl<m
concept P'" se. Von Foerster deeonstrue!S the paradox of wlipsistic self·
descriptio", by .. framing it within a world created by the mutual observations
of two or more (mock) 501ipsi,ts. To state the moral of thi' parable in S<"(ond·
order system, parlanc.: if .uropoietic system, can nolbe en"ironmentally dosed
'ystem, (a, thermod)'llamic .ystem, ideally Cdn) and if the mind i, an autopoi ·
cti< 'ystem (the psychic 'ystem), thm 5OIipsi'm- "pure"' self-reference----has no
way to even begin to operate. Solipsism i, thus dismissed a, cognitive repression
of the en,' ironment.
Still. the paradox i, 50 easily r'50h'ed that we almost fail to notice that what
we haw just been presented i. another bit of conceptu.l 'leighl of hand, a mock
proof, a rhetorical   a, a logical ,,<iuclio. As
Hayl"" has noted, although without, I think, appreciating the full ,ignificance
of her OO"""ation, "Von Foerster himr.tlf seemed to recogni .. that the argu-
ment wa, the philosophical equinlent to pull ing a rabbit from a hat. "" But
the worldly em'ironment within which aU cogniti"e .ysum, are embedded wa,
not .. aUy in .. riou. doubt. only the rigor with which it got itself factored into
.ystem, thinking. What "on Foerster implie. with hi. magical fallacy i. that
we .tili haw a hard time taking for real that all knowleilgeof the environment
depend. upon the . pecific realities of the .ystem, that it . The 'Frrmic
reality of the environment i, to be both the precondition ",,,I the product of
an ob .. rving .y.tem. Thi' is the self-reference bound up in any presentation of
something beyond the .. If. The M8H co""ey' an ironic mes.sage to those who
would affinn that when they OOr.trve the world and ,tate their truth. about it,
they are '101 a part of the reality they are describing, that they are not embed-
ded within their own description •. Thi' denial would be the sort of .... ""
solipsism of the epi.u mological positivi.t that po.il5 a contextle" context of
knowledge-as if the world could be known wit hout the of local and
e",bodied knowers to carry out the knowing. s.o the ". ubjedi"e" .elf/other
difference of tM second paradox double. tM "objecti,'e" system}en,';ronment
coupl ing developed in the firM paradox, aUowing for the different, en"ironmen-
tal reality of the other to arise a .. cond ti me, thi' time out of the self-reference
of the ",If •• ob .. rving .y.tem,
In the 1959 paper, von Foerster <concludes the bowler hat interlude with
a methodological propo.ition in the form of discursiw aside: "Ha>ing re -
establi.hed reality, it may be intere.ting to note that reality appears as a consi. -
tent frame for at least two observers.
" And if we examine MBH
carefully. we ".,. that he con. trucl5 in imagination IWI} ow,w", one of whi ch
confirm, hi. reality by imagining him. The total figure, then, prrfigures what
second-order cybernetic, will cali the obse ... '.ti on of ob.ervation. Through
a reticulation of le .... l, of OO .. rvation. it present. a .. cond-order ,'iew of the
rpi.temological .ituation, which rewal, that the solipsist, in turn, exi,ts both a,
the figment of it. own figments and as the OO .. rvation of another ow ... 'er.
For the solipsi't to confess that its own exi,tence depend, on the real ity of
an other in it' en>ironment i • • parable of the overcoming of ontological
a1i.m by epi.temological con'tructi>'i.m. Taken as. diagram of rffursive co-
cognition, then. the M"H i, not a sterile     haU of mirrors, or vi -
cious circle of the .. me aU O\'er .gain. Literally considered, tbe MBH does not
.imply .. in a mode of infinite rrgr""s; rather, an other i, interpo .. d
between the .. If and it . .. nection. Thi. i. better understood a, a productive
oscillation, a, the image of a mut ual of the oth .. within the self
and the self within the other. The m""'ge is that the reality one can know
depends on the communication of reality from one obsen'" to another, which
d.".nds on "a consistent reference frame" withi n which "at lea51two ollsen'ers"
are emlx-dded so .. to con,truct a con"ersation aoout that reality.
As we haw just seen, ' On Self-Organizing Systems and Their Environm.nt s·
adumbrates the explicit epistemological const",cti"i,m of von Foerster'. b ter
""'y' ",it h a system. theory built on the premises of recursi",ly structured
system}environment coupl ... A multiplicity of mutuall y reinforcing ob .. .,,-
en maintains rdationship. and states of stable C1o<s-systr mic re50nance von
Foerster will come to call   at both tlK biological and the >lXial
le"e!. Thus it i. fining that ",hen ,"""wdl', Demon makes • literal .ntrance
later in the paper, it doe, its self-organizing not .. a 5010 act within a doS<"d
system. but instead .. a duo of demons coUaborating to .. If-organize within a
'ystem/ environment dyad under their mutual obsen·ation.
This tim., the matter of entropy i, treated cybernetically. in its information-
thromic redescription as a mea,ure of Ihe relaTive order or disorder of an in-
formation source: ' Order h .. a rdati"e connotation, rather than an absolute
one, namdy, ",ith resl"' t to th. maximum disorder the dement' of the
may be abl . to display." \' on Foerster advances Claude Shannon's definition of
redundancy ( R) as a measure of the order of a sy. tem, derived by . ubtracting
from unity or maximum order the relati"e .ntropy. "the ratio of the entropy H
of an information source to the maximum value, H. , it could have while stiU
restricted to the >an,. symbols.""
Von Foerster work. through further mathematical modds that would ob-
tain for a system whose self-organization is observed in these terms. The self-
organizi ng operations of the ittums out, can be "iewed from eit her ' ide
of the ratio. For instance, if the maximum ent ropy H. is hdd constant, then the
will self-organizing ifthe entropy H can decreased. This represent'
the "internal " vie", of the situation, and von Foerster .I ip' the first demon int o
the demonstration to underscore its boundedn . .. on th. inside of the ,y.tem:
' Sinu all the", changes take place internally I'm going to mau an ' internal
demon' responsible for .. . shifting conditional probabilities brrstablishing ties
betv,,,n dements ,uch that H i. going to deerea",: " How ...... r, if instead of
the maximum entropy th. given entrop)' of the .y.tem H i, held constant.
' we obtai n the peculiar result that . .. we may na .... a .. If-organizing sptem
HtlNZ   mUSTER'S of MONS 47
(I,ud. Sh.nnon',
0/ R.dund.n<y.
us., if il5 maximum   is     1 n other words.,
it is al", pos.sible to increa ... the order of a syste", by ",a;ma;n;"g;f< ."tropy
whUe ;"c",as;ng it, comp/.x;,y: "Goady, this task of increasing H. by k .... ping H
constant asks for superhuntan skills and thus we may entploy
whom I ,hall call 'external demon,' and who ... busine,. it is to admit to the
system only those the ,tate of which compli .. with conditions of,
at least. con,tant internal entropy .• "
HO\wwr, in both   limit   i, chained while the other
doe, aU the work. The more common situation will be on. both
mons are fr .... to mow"" or- tramlating thi' mathematical allegory of ", If·
organization into ",mewhat plainer term........,ne where systematic processes
and en\'ironmental resources are structurally coupled to each other in way
that maintain, the system and under fayorable conditions enabl .. it to reduce
its andior incre .... its complexity. The paradoxical boundary where
system and e",ironment m""t is marked by the "greater than" 'ign indicating
the higher order ofthr system relatin to the order but greater complexity
of its en\·ironment. In thi' parable of productive mutualily, what I also like to
read as a fable of academic interdiseiplinarity, "if the two demons are permitted
to work together, they will a disproportionately easier life compared to
when they forced to
Now yon Foerster makes a famous final mow that 'ymhe>izes the energic
and informati, potential. of hi. system-throretical and the
orlier-irom-IIoi", principle from double linkage between the internal and
external demon which makes them entropicaUy (H) .nd energetically (E) in·
    It i, not ju>! a matter of "negentropy, · as that term WJ.5 used at
the time to identify informational order with negative entropy. Self-organizing
system, can al", the rx,r",a/ IIoisrof their .n\·ironments into s),stemic
gain: "Thus. in my r .. taurant self·organizing systems do not only feed upon
order. they .lso find noise on tho menu."" With the formulations that "reality
appears as a consistent for at least two ob",rv<rs" and "a self-
organizing ,),stem feeds upon noi .. : yon Foerster both shape. and integrates
the future courses of ,<,<ond·order and ,elf· organizing 'ystems theory. Citing
lip '. work on structures in discu>sion lhat followed
hi. 1959 presentation." he inspir .. the theoretical bioinfonnatics of Henri Atlan,
taken up by Michel Serres, and anticipate> broad fumre development, in chaos

Hoi", ron
f .. ",.,',
'nt.,n.1 and
£> ... """
thooey, the actor- network theory of Bruno Latour, and autopoietic 'y,tem.
lhrorie, ofMalUrana and Varela and NikJas luhmann."
To demonstrate the ordor-from-noise principle, von F"""ter play. a sophis-
ticated game of 'tacking blocks. Conjur..d up to probe Shannon's mathematic.
of information in light of a dual'Y5tem-and-. m-ironmem approach to Ih. self-
organization concept, th. expo.ition oflhe order- from-noise principle is done
up with magnetic cube, reminis<:ent of Chari .. Howard Hinton', t...,.racl,
or hYJX"1"cube.," Th. blo<:k, arr prepared by gluing to their face. magnetized
"luares with either the north or sout h pol. of t he magnetization facing out-
,,·ard. Out of the ten possible arrangements, noou, cubes will n .. 'e more or
leM propensity to mupk their pre-Sen! opposite or the >arne mag-
netic pol .. , The probability is high that attracted ,urfaces wiU indee<l fasten to
each other. If a large number of cube, otner than those that offer all north or
aU sout h poles, so only repel each other, is placed in a OOX in a jumble and
given a vigorous,hake, t he cubes will assume a more ordered formation. "The
entropy of the system has gone down, hence w. have more order afur the
shaking than before, " Ind""d, if one work, with a populati on of cubes with a
particularly favorable arrangement of facet polarities, von Foerster proclaim.,
"you may not believr your eyes, but an incredibly orderfii structure will emerge,
which, I fancy, rna)' pass the grade to be displayed in an exhibition of surrealistic
art. ""
How could t h;. "Th. shaking, of coUTS<'----and some little demons
in the 001: Von Foerster's daemonic duo outdo MOIXweU', Demon, a" flash-
light or no, it had to sort by detecting partiel .. , cakulating their trajectories,
sel"'ting and rejecting candidates for transfer, then opening and dosing the
"slide without rna,," over the aperture in the diaphragm, In ,'on Foerster's self-
organization scenario, the environment donates it' energi .. to the processes
increasing the 'ystem', order. As with the mindsof children, for instance, order-
ing can emerge when random energie,"" distributed among ,ebtable elements
such as building blocks and giwn enough time to play, Just as no additional
lumbl.d 80 ...
(drawn by
Gordon V •• k).
rnergy wa, imponed inlo Maxwell', Demon', 'Y'tem. "No order was fed to the
system 1 of the blocks I, juot cheap undirected energy: however. thanks to the
little demons in the box, in the long run only tho", of the noi",
were ",lected which contributed to the inc rea", of ordrr in the system.'"
Best of al!, in thi' ",enario these offspring of J\.JaxweU', Demon are not
entirely imaginary: "The co-operation of our i, guaranteed be<cau",
they are not interlopers from elr.ewhere, but are them ... l,·", "created along with
the dements of our 'ystem. being manifest in some of the intrinsic structural
propenies of the", dements."" Von Foerster', ",If-organizing demon. are a.
allegorical as Maxwell'" but they are not merely thought-experiment.l . Rather,
they are pragmatic personifications of the str uct ural attributes of material -
mergetic dements. the building blocks of systems and their theori",. Wh.r"",
Maxw. U', Demon was first envi,ioned a. an idealized supplement to the d<'SCrip-
lion of a clo ... d entropic .yst.m. \'on Foerster's demons deri'" from cybernetic
models of tM radical di>tinction yet operational coupling between energy and
informat ion in   Thus, with von Foerster, the demon may be
seen to haw entered a further, post-compulJtionai phase of hi> Gue"" now
.. a messenger of deterministic chaos and .. a mediator between information
theory and cybernetic system, theory.
s.,f -orBanil. ,;on
from lioi ... (drawn
I>y Gordon Pa,k).
of Soda I Systems Theory
m,v ilth,' world un lloubtodly i. .•. t. Indi>1in" fr om •• 11), but, In 'ny
oll.mpt to..., 1".11,. on obi.", n mu.t, oquotty undoubtodly, oct ><I •• to m,k. it..,1f
lI i>1ln<1 from, .nd f. l .. to, 1" . 11. In 'hi. conditfon wilt alw,y. p.rtl,lly
k..,H.- G. ",S' la ... of form
From one paper to the next in UM,Jersrml<ling Undrrstnnd,ng, a cenain ... huf-
!ling of the ",me deck ocmr. as nero ari .... But von Foemer'. di<;cur>ive re-
cursions are not merely repetiTi,'. or perfunCTory: hi' discou .... evol" ... and
""urrent elements take on new role. and bear new meanings. Take perhaps Th.
most accessible and broadly disseminated rendering of von Foerster'. insights
into r,""uHi"e neural computation and whaT Maturana and Varela would soon
GIll the "organizational closure" of autopoietic 'Y'tem., th"97.1 paper "On Con-
STruCTing " R.ality. " In kt'eping with the rhetoriul pattern 1 d.scribed abm'e, iT
begin' a humorous and erudite literary a11u.ion, Then .. gues 10 • series of
perc.ptualpuzzles eliciting "blind 'poi'" in the .. "",rium before setTling into
its central argument. r.garding n.ural comput" tion and the "double closure"
of cognitive 'ystem,.
"On Constructing a Rfali ty" i5 a .. minal annunciation of .second-order cy-
bernetic" precisely as a constructi vi't theory of cognition. As one now ",ys
in the voc.bulary of Georg. Spencer-Bro"", "On Conmucting a R.ality" re-
mt", the form of cybernetic ob ..... ·ation into it' own form. Von Foerster later
coins the slog.n "the obse ... ·.tion of ob .. rvation" for thi' mode of cybernetic
self-r.fer.nce, and "On Constr"",ing a Reality" prefigures thi' slogan with its
logical derivation of cognition a, r.cursi,·e <computation.
Computation i. generalized to mean any proce" or algorithm that trans-
fonns or re<:odes ,timuli or d.ta pre .. me-d to it: "Computi ng (from com-
li," .. lly means to rer1ecI, to <contemplate Ihi ngs in concen (com), with-
out any reference to numerical propert ie •. r ndeed, J shall use thi' term
in thi' most g.neralsense to indicat. any operation (not ne<:es",rily numerical)
that tran,forms, modifie" "arrang", orde .. , and", on, observed phy'ical
entiti .. ('obj""') or their r.presentation> ('symbol,)."" Alt hough the t .. m
  dots not appear in it, se".ral of Humbeno Matumna', works.,
preliminary to that coinage <co-authored with Varela, are cited in it, and the
form of the concept of ......... lf-r.f ... mial r"uHion bounded by op-
frational ciosure------i, limned throughout the essay.
Using recu ... ion as a , kekton k.y to unlock. of <compl.x self- refer.ntial
.yst.m., von Fotmer's second-order cyberneti c, arrived .t • general discourse
cognition _
compUtat ions J
Cognition .s
Co mput.tlon.
of operational circularity by turning cybernetic I hinking upon itself. Luhmann
has written about cybernetics in general that "the first innovation was the If-
di><owry of th. cirde as, at the same moment, a natural and technical form.""
When "iewoo in this wider context, much ofLuhmann's social system. theory
extends directly from von Foerstd. contributions to th. recuperation of self-
Ifference." In "Notes on an Epistemology for li"ing Things" von Foerster
,ketch .. the waY' that. for mmt of a century. hard ><ientific thought has bren
forced to acknowledge the paradox ... of oose"'.tion.'" Forcing the epistemologi-
cal issue of second-order cybernetic., Luhmann puts thel"radox point blank in
"Th. Cogniti,'e Program of Construcli"i,m": "II is only non-knowing 'ystems
that can know; or, one can only see brcause one cannot see."" However, how
w" a dis<ourse of knowledge founded on a concept of ,elf-reference, which
implies the operational dosure of .ubjects of knowledge reconceptualized.s
'observing ' y'lem," (ut oUi from their surrounding environment'. resull in
an)1hing but a ,hon cirmit or an infinite regr"""!
To epistemology to an flfJl licitly system/em'ironmcnt para-
digm forces a "",,,.de of   This <ognitiw rfgime bars any tradi -
tional form of empirical or reali't representationali.m. any 'implistic notion
of knowledge as a mKhanies of linear inputs and outputs, R.d.><ribed as the
production of an observing system. cognition is rendered .. a <ontingem op-
erational effect rather than assumed as a free -tloating or even disembodied
agency. The boundary bern",n ",ubject" and "ObjKt " i. If-cognized as both
an ongoing product of and an impassabl.limit to the operation of the system.
A system boundary never just is. ontologically, but is alway, mming into bring
as pan and parcel of th. ,)·"em·s total autopoi .. is, AI; a self-referential product
of th. sy"em", operational endosure. the boundary guarant . .. that the 'ystem
is autonomous, or "information-tight." The '",'ironment as ·object" cannot
enter into the . ystem in the of its own being. cannot dictate to th. sY'tem.
What it can do i, penurb its observ .. in such a way that the .. y"em reorganiz ..
its own dements to compeusate, which compensation must then count for the
'ptem', cognition of the obje<:t. One of the more :scandalous wap to express this
situation appears as Proposition t t in von Foerster', "Notes on an Epist.mology
for LiYing Things": • TI,e ",viron",ellf comaim 110 infcm,atitm: rl,e ",viron"'ellr
i, ir is."'" That is to say. it is only self-referential observing systems that can
con.truct environments in the mode of information; the construction of these
From Subj«I/Obje" to
de",ription. is .o1.!y the   affair , "The ,,,,';ro",,,,"t;, as it is. However,
there i. alway, more than one ob .. rving 'ystem; or again, cognition i. alway,
aha a ><Kial affair. Ob .. rving 'ystems in communication may be ob",rved to
arrive at eigrnbt-h"vior>-that i" mutually to "abiliR and ",info,ce perceptions
The "irtual boundaries of ><Kial and p,ychic ,y"ems are produced and
",produced by the form, of distinction tho", same 'ySTems con"ruct in the
medium of l>elWcen .. If and other, between and exdu-
,iOlI- that render tho .. 'Y"tems operable at any giwn moment, maintainable
from one mom.ntto the next, and sufficiently distinct from their environment
and other sy"em, 10 maintain operation •. Luhmann write" "Boundaril'S can
be differentiated a •• pecific mechani,m. with t h. specific purpo'" of "'pant·
ing yet conn<"C1ing. Th.y a .. ume thi' function via particular performance, of
",Iection. ·" P.ychic and ><Kiai identities coale ... around a system', probable
reiteration of the same .. led ion. from a given repertoir. of pos.<ible distinc-
tionsand may be transform.d when different ",1.Clion, r.mify into a new norm
or new options enter the repertoire of possible diSiinClion'>. BUI beesu .. the
in.vitable effect of. sy,tem' , history of ",If-bounding through cognitive .. Iff-
tions is to hJ\'e excluded, at least for the time being, other form. of pos.<ibility,
Luhmann goes on to note that ". contact mediatro by boundarie> cannot convey
to any ,)'''em the full complexity of another. e ... en if its capacity for proce"ing
information would O1herwi .. be sufficient. ·"
The figur. on page 5-1 diagrams the operation of .. entry a. a model of rffur-
,ive cognition in the ",cond-order cybernetic description of observing system"
This is how one construCl. a reality: an ob""rving 'ystem S, a nff ..... rily .. !f-
referential form, creates.pistemological space for itselfby "",mering the \"inuai
form of its o\'ill boundNi distinction from the environment BIE into itself a,
54 laUe! CLARKf

  • 0/
lh. virtual border blc. whi,h it can then u .. to make distinctions betwe.n .elf
and other. It can th. n, at any gi"en moment, construct its .. Iectiv. knowl.-dge
• as a reduction of the complexity ofth. environm.nt E rcnder.-d through its
own repertoire of distinctions. We..., that our knowledge of Ii will alwaY' be
a somewhat le""r version. e. But tha!"s .til! saying something. and S can also
proceed to test its knowl.-dge, its internal model c, against other version. con·
struct.-d at other mom. nts. In this way we ... that. i. not a ,tatic production
but an ongoing, recursi"ely refresh.-d computa t ion. And recursive pr()( ..
like rolli ng hoop. or gyroscopes, are .. If-,tabilizing-they tend 10 find
own balance.
In · On Conmucting a Reality," f(}(u>ed on a wmparabk model of "double
closure," von Foerster draws from hi. di>cussion of neural computation. con-
clusion that we can also apply to lh. model in figure to. According 10 "the
postulate of cognitive homeostasis," our .. If·referential construction> of tit.
world are renderrd relatively stable (and nol m<rely arbitrary) !>«arne as a
result of it. own recursive .. If· corrections. "The nervou, .ystem is organized
(or organize. it .. lf ) so thai it comput es a ,table reality."" But still, how doe.
thi ... If-referential construction of epiSlentologi(al constructivism diff .. from
lraditional in which Ihe world of object. was also presented
a. a product oflh. mind', own ",tiviti .. ? Ai; Luhmann ob .. ,,·.-d at the outset
of "The Cognitive Program of " It i. only in our century that
Ih. name ' ideali.m' has been repla(fd by "constructivi.m.' ... Insofar as con·
,tructivi.m maintaim nothing more than the of the external
world 'in it .. lf' and the clo.ure of knowing-without yielding, at any rate. 10
lhe old skeptical or 'solipsistic' doubt Ihal an external world exi.t. at aU-there
is nothing new 10 be found in it. "" To earn its epistemological.purs as a true
and pivotal r.-description of our knowl.dge of knowledge, that is, n"<>cybernetic
(onstructivism mmt demonstrate iIS actual operationality, its sodal producti"ity
Ixrond any .ingular mind'. phenomenality.
Thi , i, one reason why von Foerster concludes "On Constructing a Reality"
with a coda acknowledging that his foregoing discu>sion could plausibly be
dismi""d .. a plea for solipsism, if it were to be delimited by old philosophical
habits, "the view that this world i, only in my imagination and the only reality
is the imagining 'I.' Indeed, that was precisely what I wa, saying before, but I
Wd> talking only about a s.ingle organism, The situation i, quite different when
there at< two,"'" We see that the faUacy of solipsism alwa)" wa, an aberration
but not a paradox: it was an inference logically induced by the id.alization of
.ingularity, the re.idual monothMlogism that aUowed the comception of dis-
embodied observations----that i., the conception of the po"ibility of s)"tems
without environments, and thus the possibility of a system una,companied by
other s)"tem •. Th. real paradox is that we could hal" gone so long imagining
that th .. e could be not just mind. without bodi .. or world., but also mind, in
the ab .. n" of other mind,.
As we recall, in dOn Self- Organizing and Their En\'ironments," the
Man with the Bowler Hat prefigured but did nol unfold the matter of cognitive
self-reproduction, or the autopo;'sis of the psychic system. The main thru.t
of thai .... y was self-organization as the emerg.nce of order from noise in
material -energetic s)"tems. When the MBH makes an .ncore foun..,n yea"
!ater, it is no longer put to work to .upport the reality of the em'ironment
se, but rather to suppon a view of that reality that now rests solely and explicitly
on it. cognitive co-con.truction by mulliple observing Misreadingsof
the""H are more likely to occur in the context of thi' paper, however, be<cause
here it. epistemological expo.ition i. relatively compressed. Having just .pent
an entire paper formulating the recursive nalure and operational closure of the
nervous system, in a way now dirKtly (if still implicitly) tied to the proposi -
tions of second-order cybernetic>, \'on Foerster h .. le .. interest in using the
MBH to satirize and dKonstruct the architecture of sol ip.i.m. Rather, "solip-
,ism" is morphed into "irresponsibil ity· and blasted into a dimen,ion
that provides for its .. If-o\'ercoming. Where .. in the 1919 paper the mantra
of the wli!"ist had been, "j that I am the .ole   the entire 1973
paper revolves around an initial con.tructivist postulate--'"The Environment
as W. Perceive It Is Our Jt,..ention""- that would ""em considerably to up
the solip,i.t 's .nte., from here we can see more clearly why Ih. ,""ond paradox in "On
Self-Organizing S)'''el1l' and Their Environment s" was a mock fallacy, a state-
ment that only seem, to oscillate belween true and false . Rather, it inrue,ju.t
not true enough. Once again, a. in the first paradox regarding 'ystem. without
56 BRun ClARKE
environment'. ir caprul" "''''rrhing !rur bur MO/ .ujfirienr abo"lrr"Ury. Namely.
wh"r js rrue (thaI is, as Ime as possible under co n'lruclivi'l con>1raim. on Ihe
concept of"lrulh") i, Ihal we do have 10 con>truCi realily- "the environment
as we perceive it;, our im'ention." But whal i, illSujfidrm is the implication
Ihat when we do so, we are in the ",lip,ist i, situation of going it alone. In
' On ConsuuCling a Reality. " Ihe grammatical doubling of the consttuctivi't
postulate (" the environment as ..... perceive i t ~   carries the epistemological
weight. Whereas solipsism proceed, in the singular. con'trueti,'ism proceed,
in the plural. Solipsi,m is transcended not by negating its propo,ition but by
forcing the complexity of the mult iple out of it' unitary ,implicity. Epi>temol -
ogy pnx..m from classical capture by the ,i ngularity of the knowing mind to
multiple knowledge> in social context,.
s«ond-order cybernetics =, in'tead a world ", constructed that any 'ingle
observer', obsel"\,.tions may be rendered stable from moment to moment by
the slruetural couplings and recursi"e conversation< of il< mult iple observ-
ers. lust as all n .. ,'ou> system, and all organi,m, thai PO"'" them within
themsel"e5 are virtual consortium, of multi ple ,ulOroietic 'ystems, '" are all
ob""r\'er, bound into (what Varela call,) "obse,,'er-communitie," within which
(what Luhmann call.) 5/Jdaiautopoiesis-the ongoing self-production of and
self-maintenance of commun;cation--produces (what von FOff.ller aU,) ri-
ge""niuN-lhal i., , table )'et mobile and multiple .. cursive consensuse, about
,hared en"ironment'.
By w.y of conclu,ion. let us read some of Luhmann', opening mo,'., in
Social Sy<lfII" to appreciate the force with which von FOfrstrr', text inA""t,
Luhmann', 'ystem, theory. as well as Ihe extent to which Luhmann', theory
represents one of the most imponant ways that "on FOfrster', pioneering work
has come to funher fruition. Luhmann', "Introduction: Paradigm Change in
Systems Theory" states the following:
The theory of sel f-referential 'ptem s maintain, that system. can d iff .. ent i-
ate only by self-ref .. ence, whi<:h i, 10 say, only insofar a, 'ystem. ref .. to
them .. lv., (be thi' to element s of the same system. 10 operations of the
same .ystem. or to the unity of the same 'ystem) in constituTing ele-
ments and their elemental operations. To make thi' possible. 5)'stem, must
create and employ a description of Ihemsel",,; they must at le.,t be able
to use the difference between sy,tem and en"ironment within themsel"",.
for orientat ion and a, "principle for " .. ating information. Therefore self-
referential dosure is possible only in an environment. only und .. ecological
The footnote here is to von F"""'ter' , "On Self-Organizing Systems and Their
one of the essential !",ims of which wa, that in the >ugue for
notion, of self-organization then abroad at the tum of the 1<}60', sptems thwry
also had to discipline itself against traditional bia .. , toward the singular "If of
self-organization at the expense of it' multipl" and heterogenwus other, it,
environment. Luhmann', phra .. "ecological condition,," then, i, neatly parsed
to mean "em'ironmental contingenci .. ,"
Luhmann conti nues: "The environment is a necessary correlate of self-
referential operations because th...., out of aU operations (annot operate under
the premi .. of solipsism .... The footnote here i, to von Foerster's "On Con-
stru(ting a Reality," implicitly to the (oda we were ju,t discussing, where the
treatment of sol ip,ism is itself a compressed   of a longer passage from
the earlier ' On Self-Organizing System,. " This compound, the extent to which
Luhmann ;'Ieaning on "on Foerster's pro"i,ion of systems-theoretical prentises
that predate the expli(it turn toward .. cond-order recursions, But Luhmann',
passage goes right on to rei""oke matt. rs of disti nction and reentr), that we (dn
app=iate as the Spencer-Brownian side of yon Foerster' , legacy: ", , , cannot
operate und .. the premi" of solip,ism (one could e"en say because ... ·erything
that i, seen playing a role in the en\'ironment mu>l be introduced by means
of diSTinction), Th. (subsequfntl), das-si(al) distinction l>f\Wffn 'dosed' and
'open' system, is replaced by the question of how srlf-rrferenli<lr clo,ure (<In
create ·47 Thi, conceptual fram"",rk of a paradoxical yet recursiwly
operational open closure spanning the auto!",ietic spectrum from biotic to meta-
biotic instances is the crux of the radi(dl n""",yb<-rnetic reorientation of syst. m,
thinking around a paradoxi(al "sublation" of the dassi(al polarity between
"dosed" and   'y'tems, owr which as a>lute as Hayles continue,
for what", .. reasons, to ,tumbl • . Polarities aligning humanism with openness
and antihumanism with closure shift to ,trategies for an adequate conceptual
grasp of the complex /","",nj,,,, of nt'OCybemetic thought, "
In the immediate continuation of thi' passage, Luhmann offers hi' post-
humanist formulation of the epistemological boundaries or ob"",...·Jtional con-
straints Hansen in thi' yolum. foreground, in Varela's  
precept "'pecting the autonomy of auto!"'i. t;'; ob"'rving systems: "He .. too
one com .. to a 'sublation' of the older ba,i( diff .. ence lbetween 'ystem
and environment] into a more comple1 th<"Ory. which now . nabl .. one to
speak about the introduction of ",If-description" self-ob",rvatio"" and ,,,If-
simplifications withi n 'f'ltem" One can now dist i ngu is h thesysteml. n"i ron ment
difference as .. en from the perspective of an cobse ..... r   that of a sciontist )
58 BRun ClARKE
fro m the 'y'temknvironment diff .. encr a, it i. mro within the .y.tem it -
self, the observer, in tum, being conceivable himself only a, a ",If-referential
In "On Constructing a Reality" "on Foerster presents his own "ethico-
ontological" understanding of n'"""ybernetic co-constructivi.m by forci ng the
social issue out ofthe biological and neurological factors of operational cl05ure.
wringing from the MBH the cognitive confession that "reality = community." H.
unfold. from the pair ofint emal """' .. '." in the", OH a pair of co-constructing
wei.l iml"'rati,'es------two performative ulterances bound together by a feedback
loop, The "ethkal   i. "Act al ways.., as to increase the number of
choices", the "arst'ortkal is "If you d",ire to see, learn how to act ....
If ethic. concern, the oprmtionssystem. selfft for themseh'". esJlKially in..,far
as these 'ystem, may be considered as self-refere ntial or "refimive" rntities.
a .. thetia concerns the role of 00""''''''01'' in guiding those operation" To .hift
into the conceptual mode of second-order 'ystems theory, then. i, to .efonn
classical dyads such as part/whole di"i,ion, or 5ubjfft/obja-Y dichotomies. in
ord .. to reob .. r .... and gra,p the complex.Jy supplementary rather than merely
exdmionary relation. of 'ystem/environment couples and to re -cognize the
borde" that self-organizing, now aUlopojeric. system, mu,t use in order to
Simply put. taking 'y'temic ",If- reference seriomly .ubvert' the notion of
"objective" material or philo..,phical foundations, And those ", ho bel ie"e in
the actual or po<sibl . po ... "ion of "objective truth" can only see in such a
dffon,truction an oc"",ion for its fiip .ide. that other mirage callro ' subje<:-
ti'" re lati"ism." This negative o"illalion of uni ... r .. 1 trulh and indi\'idual
fal.ity is the infinite regress one enters by ",'o,rl,ng the producti"e encounter
with paradox. On the plus ,ide, o!>ser ... " can now choose 10 construct them-
selves a, inside and a part of. as well as outside and detache<l from. the sy,tem,
and environment' they obs"",ve. And if we were to con"ince ourselves Ihat
the whole show- the "';rtual integration of all biotic and metabiotic system,
into a global en"ironment stretching out to the boundless cosmos----i. at all
times wllcrrj,,,,ly self-bootstrapping-that is, held up by Ihe , elf-maintenance
and complex interlocking of all of it' strange loops----we might start to be-
have in less merely selfish ways. Who know" we might even begin to over-
come the larger socin/..,lip,isms Ihat are currently wreaking destruction on
"""'ial system, and their natural environment,. While Luhmann himself re-
mained skeplical of such a recuperaliw reading of .ystem, theory, "on Foerster
did not.
t . Fint hand .. rounlS of th"", ownlS ore &i,'en in von Foe,,,,,," "'i,h I'oe,ksrn. U"J,,-
,Iu"di"g S1"lc,,",. 135-40 • • nd B,.nd, "Fo, God'. Sake, M.rga,et."
2. s.e. hi. f.mily «min&ence. "Introdu"ion 10 Nato,.r Magic." An illustr .. ed biog-
raphy of von lin {;erm:tnJ i. (;ro",ung. H. rt m.n. Korn,.nd Mull"" H<ioz
",n     p. 16 ,""ow> •• nap,J,ol of "on Foente,.nd hi. <oo, in '" t«n.ged
m'g,nan •.
.J. In "Tho f.arly D. Y' of Aotopoie>i, in this ",Iume. V.,er., n."Ol .. the hi,lo')' of
t he fin' .ppearance of ",otopoi .. i," in . 1971 Lnil .. n public.ti"" by M.tu,.n • • nd
y.,oI •. IH "'"qui"", r """ ";",und von I-"oe,"",,', vetting of it> fi,,, .ppearance in
Engli<h: Varel., . nJ Uribe. "). utopoi,,';,." Von Foe,,,", then publ i.h""
.. BioiogiGoI Computer Labo,.to,y Report 9.4 ( Soptember I, 19751 thei, exl.nded
,«.tment, AulojXIirli,   whieh ..... .,ntu.rly 'ppe'" ., ).u,o/,<,;"" ""d Cosni-
lion. s.e. .1", z"lmy. "Aotopoi",i.:
4. Yon Foe"te" ' On Sd f-O'ga ni,ing Sy"em>,· I, The .nick wo. flnt publi,h.d in
Y ovi .. and Cameron, 0" Sdf-O'&""Ui,,& Spurn>, 31--SO.
So Von P"""1<', · On Self-O'!;o1nizj ng   I.
6. In the ".nJa,d .nthropomorphic idiom. the edi tor> of. compendium of "i-
.nt ilie P"P"'" on M"""",Il'. INmon ,.., i .. , "Tho lif. of demon can be
,·i.,....! ",.folly in tenD> of th,,,,,,   (Leff and Rex. AluXI>,d l'.' fR-
Ilion, ;:). Th.a..d ... "MoxwcU', Silver H.mmn" i, • likely .tovi,m, cr.
",dr. D.mon"., Bri .n', ( Rhy>,,1 g1.m pe,""n. in .... ,
Go/;/", i",.
7. llK.u"" of ,It. notion of u>i ng • demon '0 grn"''' «nergy out of thin a i, whe, than.
",ilh M .. ,...u. '0 ,,,,tore .".n' enorgy (by ,he 1i,,1 1,10) from onu>a bJe to o>able
fo,m, tbe demon i, "",,<lime> , i m plisticall y p,,,,,,n'oJ •• 'he ol"""ato, of. pe,petl1.11
mot>on machi"", ]-'0' more on M .. well ,nd hi. d,'mon from .Ii,,,,",u,,,,nd science
perSpec1i,-., "",CI. rie, En"g}, 4' anJ H.yI ... "Solf-Rdl",i", Mer.phon.·
more on t he <ultu"" of the'modynamic>' >« •• nd SlOng"", om« 0"'
of S1<nge". Po"",, mrd In .... ",ion, "p, '"Tunr.. All the W'Y Oo .. 'n· (60-74)'
. nJ Cla,r..., .nd Hond<r>on, From En"gy 10 infcrmalion_ p.rt I. A "" .. ' theory of
t berrnodynamK> in it> erumie .nJ bio'phe,ic conl<xl! i, givrn in Schneider .nd
S.gan. 1,,10 Ih, CooL
3. Von 1'"",,,,,, ·On Sdf-O'gani, ing S)'>1o m,: 1- 2: my di,ion. of the moth.matim]
notation in the o,igin. l.
5» Ibid .. ,.
10. Wolfo. erili",1   ,ubt ill • .
II. "You ",m"",be, Ken;' lIe,eo""" ... 'Am I, oram J notf H .. n,,,,.roJ this ,hetori-
c.r qUe>lion ",ith the ,,"ip>i!lic monologue. '1< pen"" Jon< j< .ui,· " (,'on p"""" ...
"Ethic •• nd Second-O,der Cybernetic>,·
I;:. Yon Foe"',,, , ' On Self-Org;1ni'ing   • 3-4.
'.1. Ibid .. 4.
4. s..,..on ,'''''''>tor with I'o<rl=n, Un,lmlanding ",hfte VQn foe",!!.'r , ......
,ooullud",ig Wittgon> .. in. "Ho was on honorary undo. a     as lhey "'Y in
Vien na, nolo rebti ...... but. ,'ery g<>Oo:l friend. My mother .nd hi •• i" ... .. gar"'l><.
well.' good f,iend." (In).
Ij. Von fuer>lor. "On Self-Ofgani<ing Sy"om.," 4.
16. Q . H.yl .... How W, &cam< "o"hu",,,,,. IJ). I .m , o!:.l;<">'ing ,ha, H.yles mi .... lhe
poinl ",hen .he comments. "Although ch .. mingly po.....J. ,he . rgumen, il logic. lly
17. Von I'oen .. r. "On Self-O'g.>niling Sy"em.," 4.
Ig. Ibid .. 7.
19. Ibid ..
>0. Ibid .. 9.
11. Ibid.
n. IbKl .. to.
2J. Ibid.
1.\. Ibid .. n.
,j. Von I'oen .. r. Undmlm,ding U",/,.,.,'"",/i,'S. '9.
><I. AlI,n tre ... ,'on Poe,,,"', order-from-noi .. prin<iple in " Hierarchical S<lf-
Organiwion in Living Sys .. m" see al", llupuy. 111, M,</umitalio" oj II" Mi"d.
lX. 120.
2'. ,'or >on f.,.nt.r, 0"'" expos i'ion of the l......-K'. "" "Cybem<!ie> of f pi"emol-
ogy," 2J?'-4'. On ,he ",ider rult Oil.' ° fide •• ,ince lh..· n in<le<.'nth C<Ill ury regarding lhe
'1'" 1;"/ con.UUCl ion of , h. founh di"",n.ion • ..., H ""de,son. 1.", 1'0""" Dim, "rio".
I .m gra,eful to Prof",>or Honde""n fo, ,haring wi,h m<.' her corll."pondmco from
>on Foe"' .... f.n lotter on tho publication of her text cit"'! .bo,'e.
,S. Von foe"t ... "On Self-O'g.>ni, ing Sy"om.," I).
'9. Ibtd.
30. Ibid.
Jt. Von foe"t ... "On Con>tr"Cli ng ' lI.e,lity," ,,6.
J2. Luhmann. "The Control of lntr, .. up>f<ocy," ]<5"
}J. On Luhm.nn·. Il.'i.tion '0 ..on !-."",>I ... ..., t l>< 'pp .... "u. o(hi. wo,k (o r pen',<i,'e
references ' o nUmerous >on Foe" .. , artie ..... I'or in>t.nce, ' he very I .... f, irly , hort
p>.f"'T cited .bo .. , "1he Control o( In,ran'p>rmcy," men,ion. foor von !-'""", ..
.. ,,>; "On Self-OrganiLing Systems" (in note 4); O/m",i"! SY"nn, (in no'. S);
  ofs.!f-Orgdnization" (in note ..,d the highly ob",ull.' 1945 to", >on
!-'""""",', «Uing carJ ",hen Ii", > ing the Su,.,. I)", c.,/ilch",i, (in note
21). s...... .Iso I\a«ler. " Kno .. kJgoanJ Ignorance."
l4. "I n 'he Ii"" qtl.lnor o( !the ,,..ent,,,h! C<Iltury p hy.ici.",. anJ «»moiogi>l> ..... e
forced to revi .... 'h< ba.ic nolion> tha, gOV<fn n,toral ""ienc ...... It Wd. de ..
lh., tho d,mic.1 <oncep' of .n 'uI,im," "'K>nc<: t hat is an obi«ti," de"" ip,ion of
lhe world in which , here,re no .ubject> (. ·.ubjKtle .. oni,..",,' ). conuin> <ontr.-
dic,ion •. To «mow t h..,., on<.' had '0 "'cOUn' fOf an 'obser",r (,hat i •• , I."", for
one ,ubj<'CI); (i) Ob.e",.,ion, Of. not .b.olute butll.'l.,i,'e to on ob ..... ,,,,', po;n, of
view (i.e. hi, coordina'e 'Y'tem: Eimt<in): Iii ) Ob""'"tion, . ffeCl the oo.."",d >0
•• to   the own,<i. hor< fo, pr<dicti<>n (i .•. hi. unceruint r i. absolU1<:
H<i!<nbe'g)" Ivon f"""tor. "No ... on an Epi>temology fo, living Thingo: 1..\7).
JS- Luhmann. · Th. Cognitiw Program of Constroctivi>m: l JL
16. Von Foe"", •. lJ"dmla"ding UN<lmlandi"l!. ljL O,igin.J .mph .. i<.
J7. The p,oblem.tico of rommunintion unde, 0 ,"""ond-o,de, qbemetic conmu<!iv-
iot '<gime. a. th .... how bffn developed ond ,,,,,,I"ed by ,'on Fo.,.,t<r.
Matu,mo, V.,ela. md Luhmann • .,o funh" .dd, .. sed. in ,yntheti< ,..Iation to
C. S. Pei,ce. Jakob von V. xliill . • nJ the conceptu.! p",gram of bio",miotic •• in
Brie,. "Th. ConmuClion of Inform.tion ond Communication:
jS. Luhmann. Socinl 29.
}9. Ibid.
40. Von Foe,,'«. "On Con!tructing a "".Jity: " j.
4'. Luhmmn. ' Th. Cogniti"< Program ofConmu<tivi<m: .
...,. Von Foe,,'«. ' On Con!truct ing' R • .Jity: 126-
43. Von Foe,,'«. U"Mnla"dillg UN<I",'and;og, 4.
44 Von Poe""". · On Comtruct ing a R<.Jity: 1\2.
4j. Luhmann. Soanl   9.
-\6. Ibid.
47. Ibid. My<mplu.i>.
On thi. point • ..., my Po,lhumm, M,I"mo'l'ho,; ..
49. Luhmann. Soanl     9.
SO. Von Foe,,"'r. · On Con!truct ing a R<.Jity: 117.
The Early Days of Autopoiesis
In this memoir, the origin of the notion of autopoiesis is presented from the
point of view of the basic intellectual background which gives its specificity
and from the role of the major actors involved in its articulation and its set-
ting in Chile in the late 19608. Heinz von Foerster's role in this connection is
exemplary, as he was an active, visionary, and supportive participant in this
evolving conversation.
My homage to Heinz will be a story. He has been a mentor, friend, and
inspiration for over thirty years, and there would be many stories to tell. But I
think it is most appropriate to dwell on a particularly rich one: his role in the
gestation and early days of the notion of autopoiesis. This is the first occasion
in which I have publicly spoken about this period, and although I think it is
important to go beyond the individual's roles, there is also the background of
ideas and of social context that makes science alive.
What does it mean when an idea like autopoiesis, in its strict sense, a theory
of cellular organization, gains visibility and prominence beyond professional
biology and becomes capable of affecting distant fields of knowledge? My answer
is that ultimately we can only understand this phenomenon because the idea
contains a background of important historic sensibilities with which it aligns and
resonates. This background of tendencies does not appear strictly delineated
but rather as a retrospective, because ideas, like history, are possibilities to
be cultivated, not a result of some mechanical determinism. At this distance,
autopoiesis holds a privileged place, in my opinion, for having clearly and
explicitly announced a tendency which today is already a force in many areas
of cultural inquiry.
The tendency to which I refer, stated briefly, is the disappearance of intel-
lectual and social space which makes cognition a mentalist representation and
the human being a rational agent. It is the disappearance of what Heidegger
calls the period of the image of the world and what could also be referred to
as Cartesianism. If autopoiesis has been influential it is because it was able to
align itself with another project which focuses on the interpretive capacity of
the living being and conceives of the human as an agent which doesn't discover
the world but rather constitutes it. It is what we could call the ontological turn
of modernity, which, toward the end of the twentieth century, is taking shape
as a new space for social interaction and thought and which, undoubtedly, is
progressively changing the face of science. In other words, autopoiesis is part
of a picture much larger than biology, in which today it holds a privileged posi-
tion. It is this syntony with a historical tendency, intuited more than known,
which is the core of the early ideas on autopoiesis and whose development I
hope to trace.
The act of signing one's name to a text, more than claiming it as a personal
possession, represents the placing of a milestone on a path. Ideas appear as
movements of historical networks in which individuals are formed, rather than
vice versa. Thus, Darwin already had Wallace waiting for him and Victorian
England as the substratum; Einstein alone in his Swiss patent office had dia-
logues with Lorentz against the backdrop of the world of German physics at
the end of the century; Crick was already familiar with the ideas of Rose and
Pauling when he met Watson, and his attitude was that of Cambridge in the
1950S. Mutatis mutandis, the history of autopoiesis also emerges out of prior
work and is nourished by a unique substratum. It was all of Chile that played
a fundamental role in this story.
Writing this story is, I insist, making a fold in history where men and ideas
live because we are points of accumulation among the social networks in which
we live, rather than individual wills or characters. One cannot claim to draw
together the density of actions and conversations that constitute us in a neces-
sarily unidimensional personal account. I don't pretend that what I say here
is an objective narrative. What I offer is, for the first time, my own tenta-
tive and open reading of how the notion of autopoiesis emerged and what
has been its significance and development since. I have let everything I say
mature over the years, and I believe it to be honest to the degree that I can
take responsibility for being one of the direct participants in this creation,
while maintaining an awareness that I cannot consider myself a holder of the
To illuminate the background, I must begin with the roots of this story
from my personal point of view. Paradoxically, only through recovering how
the background appeared in the specificity of my perspective can I communi-
cate to the reader the way in which this invention found its place on a broader
64 FRANdsco J. VARElA·
The Years of Incubation
I belong to a generation of Chilean scientists who had the privilege of being
young during one of the most creative periods in the history of the Chilean
scientific community, the decade of the 1960s. As a teenager, I had an early vo-
cation for intellectual work, and the biological sciences seemed my undoubted
destiny. Upon finishing secondary school in 1963, I opted for the Universidad
Cat6lica which announced an innovative undergraduate program in "Biological
Sciences" following the third year of Medicine. As a medical student, I got to
know the first researchers who fascinated me, people such as Luis Izquierdo,
Juan Vial, Hector Croxato, and above all J oaqufn Luco, who definitively infected
me with a passion for neurobiology. Not far into my first year, I asked Vial ifhe
would take me on as an apprentice in his cellular biology laboratory. He gave
me the key to a little door to his laboratory, overlooking Calle Marcoleta, where
I spent my free time staining myelin on nerve cross-sections.
Juan Vial also gave me good advice, including his recommendation, in 1965,
that I move to the newly opened Department of Sciences at the University of
Chile to continue my training. It was a crucial step, because I left the world
of traditional careers in order to fully enter the universe of exclusive scientific
training, until then unknown in Chile. In a few borrowed classrooms on the top
floor of the School of Engineering, I found my place to grow: a small group of
young people excited about research and pure science and researcher-professors
who taught future scientists with passion.
Apprentice to a Neurobiologist
The last piece of advice Vial gave me was to find work with Humberto Mat-
urana, who had just left the University of Chile's Medical School for the new
Department of Sciences. On a beautiful day in April 1966, I went to see him in
his laboratory in the basement of one of the sections of the new school on Calle
Independencia. At that time Maturana was already an important researcher,
known for his work on the physiology of vision in several classic papers he had
written at Harvard and MIT before returning to Chile.
In Chile he continued
to work on the physiology and anatomy of the retina in vertebrates.
To continue my apprenticeship in the trade, Humberto asked me to repeat
experiments in electric recording on the optic tectum of the frog, which led me
to investigate the problems of vision more deeply than I had ever done with a
scientific problem. When I left the laboratory on Independencia to leave for
the United States two years later, I had developed the ability to generate my
first research ideas. One was a hypothesis about the role of time in the opera-
tion of the retina, which led to some experimental predictions which were the
origin of my first scientific article.
Maturana's influence was one of the pillars
he gave me during my years of apprenticeship in Chile, but it is important that
I touch on at least two other influential currents which had and continue to
have an enormous impact on my intellectual history. The first was philosophy
and certain key readings I discovered during these years of training. The second
was discovering the world of cybernetics and theoretical biology; in both areas
Heinz's role was to become essential.
Philosophical Reflection
During my high school years my readings in philosophy were as passionate as
they were random, mixing Aristotle, Ortega y Gasset, Sartre, and Papini. In
search of a more systematic training, when I transferred to the Department of
Sciences in 1966, I also enrolled in philosophy at the old Instituto Pedagogico
and began to participate regularly in guided readings with Roberto Torreti in
the Humanities Center at the School of Engineering. The Institute's grand ideo-
logical controversies didn't interest me as much as what I could discover thanks
to the classes of Francisco Solar, which resonated with the German training of
Torreti and which took form in the collections of the Center's library. There I
discovered European phenomenology and began a reading, which continues to
this day, ofHusserl, Heidegger, and Merleau-Ponty. For ilie first time I seemed
to find in these authors a preoccupation for the definition of the range oflived
experience which I consider fundamental.
The second stunning discovery of these years was the social nature of sci-
ence. lowe to Felix Schwartzman my early introduction to this world. In his
course in the Department of Sciences, I came to know what until then was only
known by a minority in Chile, the works of the French school in the history and
philosophy of science: Alexandre Koyre (above all), Georges Canguilhem, and
Gaston Bachelard. All of iliese authors express the counterintuitive conviction
iliat scientific ideas are made and change abruptly, and not because of a lucky
accumulation of "purely empirical evidence"; that they are sustained with im-
ages and ideas which are neither given nor immutable; and that each age is
blind to the foundation of what it considers certain and evident. The general
public became aware of all this through Thomas Kuhn's famous book,S which
couldn't have existed wiiliout the groundwork of the French school, which
Kuhn quotes with reverence. Barely nineteen, I was relieved forever of my
position as naive apprentice. Schwartzman's guided readings on the mission of
the scientist turned me into a critic of what I was receiving as my professional
Brain, Machines, and Mathematics
During that pioneering era, the Department of Sciences made few concessions
when it came to training in mathematics. On my first day of class, without say-
ing a word, the professor began to write: «Let E be a vector space. The axioms
for E are .... " After the initial shock of getting up to speed, I discovered in
mathematics a language and a way of thinking that fascinated me. It was at this
ripe time that I first encountered Heinz as exponent of mixing mathematics
with brain studies. Although I didn't meet him in person until 1968, he became
quite immediately a figure of great importance for me. His papers circulated
in the laboratory, with fascinating titles such as "Circuitry of Clues to Platonic
In these sources I first realized a long tradition which seeks to express the
properties of biological phenomena beyond their material particularities. As
we all know now, it is a way of thinking that had only appeared in the 19508,
more specifically with the publication of Cybernetics, by Norbert Wiener, and
under the influence of another important person at MIT, Warren McCulloch,?
whom Humberto had met in 1959-60 when he was working at MIT. Wiener,
McCulloch, and von Foerster were the pioneers of the conjunction of episte-
mological reflection, experimental research, and mathematical modeling. Only
many years later was I able to appreciate these early days of cybernetics and the
major role Heinz played in them as editor to the Macy Conferences.
Entry into Experimental Epistemology
Apprenticeship for the trade of neurobiologist wasn't the only thing going
on in the laboratory. Humberto had entered a period of frank questioning of
. certain dominant ideas in neurobiology; discussion, reading, and debate were
daily events, spurred on by the presence of Gabriela Uribe, a physician of clear
epistemological leanings who was working with Maturana at that time. Those
were times of search and discussion focusing on what seemed a dissatisfaction,
an anomaly. A basic dissatisfaction was the notion of information as the key to
understanding the brain and cognition; the idea didn't appear to play an explicit
role in the biological process. Humberto's intuition was that living beings are,
as he said in those days, "self-referred," and in some way the nervous system
was capable of generating its own conditions of reference. It was a question of
reformulating an orientation into an "experimental epistemology," a wonderful
term introduced by McCulloch. Gabriela and Humberto had begun a study of
certain chromatic effects similar to those described by E. Land in 1964, which
were transformed into the topic around which a first attempt to reformulate
visual perception as nonrepresentational was based.
The days of my traj ning in Chile were coming to an end. The Biology Depart-
ment offered to support me in obtaining a scholarship from Harvard University
to do a doctorate. I began to wrap up my student life in Chile aware that I was
leaving with a clear focus in experimental epistemology and with three living
pillars in my imagination.
Harvard and the Crisis of 1968
I left for Harvard in a Braniff jet on January 2, 1968, reading a text by Koyre
on Plato. I arrived in Cambridge in the midst of a snowstorm, with no place
to live, far from speaking fluent English, and with the threatening knowledge
that ifI didn't get straight A's, my scholarship would be taken away. The first
few months were hard, but once settled and getting to know my way around
this new kingdom, I leaped head first into courses and seminars of all kinds:
anthropology (studies on the natural ethology of primates were beginning); evo-
lution (Stephen Jay Gould had just arrived at Harvard and was a sharp contrast
to the classicist, Ernst Mayr); mathematics (the theory of dynamic nonlinear
systems was discovered at this time); and philosophy and linguistics (Chomsky
was the dominant figure along with Putnam and Quine). I found in Cambridge
libraries until then only imagined, well stocked and open at all hours. I had the
impression of having leapt into another galaxy, and I don't remember a single
day in which I didn't feel like greedily absorbing everything at hand.
Long afterward I realized, with great surprise, that compared to most
of my doctoral classmates, my interests and vision of science were frankly
more heterodox and mature. Beyond that, I realized that talking \ ~ t h pro-
fessors about epistemological problems, as I was accustomed to doing in
Santiago, was not looked upon favorably. The reaction was the same when I
attempted to find a way to cultivate my interests in theoretical biology. The
MIT of 1968 had already disappeared, with McCulloch retired and no one to
replace him. My only point of reference continued to be von Foerster, whom I
visited several times at the Biological Computer Laboratory at the University of
Illinois in Urbana, an active and productive center which he directed in those
years. It was easy to see that my intellectual quest would have to be divided in
two: the official and the private.
Officially, I was studying under Keith Porter, in whose laboratory I learned to
work in cellular biology, and Torsten Wiesel, who not long thereafter received
the Nobel Prize for his work on "information processing" in the visual cortex.
I focused my interest on comparative aspects of vision and began work on the
functional structure of the eyes in insects, which would become the subject'of
my dissertation. By early 1970 I had already published four articles on the topic,
and my dissertation was accepted in April of 1970.
Unofficially, outside the laboratory, I found myself for the first time living
in a world infinitely more vast than that of Santiago, with young people from
other cultures, in a place where nationalities and races blended. As fate would
have it, those were the years of the mythic events that marked my generation.
What began in Paris on the night of May 10, 1968, corresponded to the move-
ment in North America, centered around its opposition to the Vietnam War.
The Kent State incident was followed by the first student strikes in which I
took part. There were dramatic moments like the night the police forced us
out of Harvard Yard. The Cambridge years were for me the discovery of my
involvement as a member of society and the possibility of taking responsibility
for changes in my social surroundings. It was a rediscovery of myself, far from
my Latin American roots, which my friends from The Movement exalted in the
form of the Cuban revolution. I was not only occupied with science, but also
with the dream of a new Latin America belonging to our generation.
Having discovered myself to be a social and political animal accentuated
the need to maintain a public silence regarding my true interests. Faithful to
the idea of science as an activity that is made and created by jumps and bold
innovations, like other members of my generation, I cultivated the intention to
return to Chile to create a different science, in which the anomalies which had
already appeared in Chile and were accentuated in the United States could be
transformed into scientific practice. Creating my own original science seemed
to me to define my obligation to my past and my roots.
I graduated as Doctor of Biology in June of 1970. Against the protests of my
professors, I declined a post as a researcher at Harvard and another as Assistant
Professor at another American university. I decided to accept a position offered
to me by the Department of Sciences, justifiably interested in a return on the
investment they had made in my training. I returned to Chile on September
2,1970, and Allende's election two days later seemed to be my second and true
graduation. At last the work could really begin, with key problems well defined,
with the certainty of being as competent and well prepared as anyone on the
world scientific scene, and within the context of working in an environment
that had a future to build. Having provided the backdrop of the situation in
September 1970, I can return now to the specifics of the notion of autopoiesis
and its gestation.
The Gestation of an Idea
Examining the Problem
The direct antecedent to the gestation of autopoiesis is the text that Maturana
wrote in mid-1969, originally entitled "Neurophysiology of Cognition." Hum-
berto had continued along his own line of questioning regarding the inadequacy
of the ideas of information and representation to understand the biological
system. He visited me on several occasions in Cambridge and, as in Santiago,
we had long conversations. In the spring semester of 1969, Heinz invited him to
come to the Biological Computer Laboratory for a few months, an opportunity
which coincided with the international meeting of the Wenner-Gren Founda-
tion on the subject of "Cognition: A Multiple View," a visionary title in light
of the enormous development of what today are called the cognitive sciences
but until then were not considered a scientific field.
Humberto prepared the text for this meeting, providing for the first time a
dear and attractive expression of his matured ideas, in order to clarify what
until then he alluded to as the self-referred nature ofliving beings and to
definitively identify the notion of representation as the epistemological pivot
which had to be changed. From his point of view, it was necessary to center
attention on the internal linking of neuronal processes and to describe the
nervous system as a "closed" system, as the text states. This article marks an
important jump, and to this day I still believe that it was the indisputable
beginning of a turn in a new direction. I remember having visited Humberto
in Illinois and having discussed several difficult parts of the text while he
was finishing it. The text appeared shortly thereafter, and the article opens
with a paragraph thanking Heinz and me for the conversations we had on
the topic.
Not long after that Humberto reworked the text into a more
definitive version which came to be called "Biology of Cognition."
This text touches summarily on an idea that had been intriguing me for
some time and that as an assistant in -the cellular biology course taught by
George Wald and James Watson at Harvard had appeared to me as a dear
anomaly: one talked about the molecular constitution of the cell and used
terms like self-maintenance, but no one, not even the two reunited Nobel
Prize winners, knew what was meant by that. What was worse was that when
I pushed the discussion in that direction during lunch, the habitual reaction
was a typical, "Francisco, always getting into philosophy." My notes from
that time include several attempts to examine the basic autonomy of the
cellular process as the basis of the autonomy oflife. Toward the end of 1969,
Jean Piaget's opus magnum, entitled Biologie et Connaissance,lO appeared in
the window of Schoenhof' s Foreign Books in Cambridge, in which he notes
the clear need to reconsider biology on the basis of the autonomy ofliving
systems, but Piaget's language and idiosyncrasies left me unsatisfied.
In his article, Humberto made the connection between the circular na-
ture of neuronal processes and the fact that the organism is also a circular
process of metabolic changes, as was illustrated with reference to a recent
article by Commoner in Science, which discussed the new advances in the
biochemistry of metabolism and its evolution. The question under exami-
nation then was: if we leave the organization of the nervous system to the
side for the moment and focus on the autonomy oflife in its cellular form,
what can we say? This reflection on the circular nature of metabolism in
living beings and its relation to cognitive operations, although barely filling
a short page in the definitive version of "Biology of Cognition," would be
a focal point from which the development of the idea of autopoiesis would
be drawn.
Those were the final months of 1970, I was back in Chile, and the Biology
Department approached me about taking on the introductory course in
cellular biology for new students. Maturana and I were now colleagues in
the Biology Department, with neighboring offices in the "transitional" (but
still used) stalls in the new campus of the Department of Sciences on Calle
Las Palmeras in Macul. Everything was in place to launch the exploration
of the nature of the minimal organization of the living organism, and we
didn't waste any time. In my notes the first mature outlines appear at the
end of 1970, and toward the end of April 1971 appear more details along with
a minimal model which would later be the subject of computer simulation.
In May of 1971, the term autopoiesis appears in my notes as the result of the
inspiration of our friend Jose M. Bulnes, who had just published a thesis
on the Quixote in which he made use of the distinction between praxis
and poiesis. A new word was appropriate because we wanted to designate
something new. But the word only acquired power in association with the
content our text assigned to it; its resonance reaches far beyond the mere
charm of a neologism.
Those were months of almost constant work and discussion. Some of the
ideas I tested with my students in the cellular biology course, others with
colleagues in Chile. It was clear to us that we were embarking on a journey
that was consciously revolutionary and anti-orthodox and that this valor
had everything to do with the mood in Chile, where possibilities were un-
folding into a collective creativity. The months that led to the development
of autopoiesis are inseparable from Chile at that time.
During the winter of 1971, we knew that we were dealing with an important
concept and we decided to put it in writing. A friend lent us his house on Ca-
chagua beach, where we went twice between June and December. The days at
the beach were divided between long walks and a monastic rhythm of writing,
which Humberto usually began and which I took over later in the day. At the
same time I began a first draft (which Humberto revised) of a shorter article
which would set forth the principal ideas with the aid of a simulation of a
minimal model (which we called the "Protobe"; more on this below). Around
December 15 (again according to my notes of 1971), we had a complete version
of a text in English called "Autopoiesis: The Organization of Living Systems."
The typewritten version came to seventy-six pages, from which we made several
dozen copies using the old blue ink mimeograph method. Although there were
several later modifications, this text was to be published much later.
As has occurred often in the history of science, the creative dynamic between
Maturana and myself resounded in an ascend,ing spiral, to which a mature inter-
locutor contributed experience and previous consideration and a young scientist
brought fresh perspectives and ideas. As is clear given the circumstances, the
ideas did not emerge in one or two conversations, nor was it a simple question
of making explicit what had already been said. What was in the background
must be considered a qualitative leap. Such transitions are never simple, nor
is it possible to retrace exactly how they came about, because there is always a
blend of past and present, talents and weaknesses, imagination and inspiration.
The mature concept of autopoiesis did have, as we have seen, clear roots, but
between an idea and its roots exists a crucial jump. And just as Franklin's work
is not the double helix ofWatson/Crick, nor Einstein's that of Lorentz's special
relativity, the key ingredients of autopoiesis cannot be reduced to the mature
expression of the idea, as is easily seen comparing the published texts. This is
a limpid example of what I had already learned from my French teachers, that
science has discontinuities, that it doesn't function by progressive empirical
accumulation, and that it is inseparable from its social and historical context.
One Idea and Two Texts
As is inevitable, understanding unravels over the course of time and in propor-
tion to its effects. So it isn't surprising that the text we finished toward the end
of 1971 wasn't accepted immediately. In fact it was sent to at least five publishers
and journals, and without exception they considered it unpublishable. I re-
member in January of 1972, my ex-professor Porter invited me to visit the new
Biology Department at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where I gave an
enthusiastic talk entitled "Cells as Autopoietic Machines." The reception was
cold and distant, as was that of my colleagues at Berkeley whom I visited around
that same time.
The difficulties of finding a publisher, added to the political climate in
Chile at the end of 1972, made me feel alienated from the international
scientific world. At the same time, the enthusiastic reception of certain
people whom I respected was of enormous value. The first to have a clear
perception of the possibilities of the idea was naturally our friend Heinz in
the United States, with whom we had been in constant communication and
who came to Chile during those years. Another well-known cyberneticist
and system theorist who reacted positively was Stafford Beer, who came
to Chile on a regular basis. In fact, Fernando Flores had contracted with
him on behalf of the government to implement a revolutionary system
of communications and regulation of the Chilean economy inspired by
the nervous system; the system came to be called Proyecto Cinco. Beer
responded to what was set out in the text with such enthusiasm that we
decided to ask him for a preface, which he agreed to write immediately.
In January 1972, 'with a fresh copy of the manuscript, I was invited to
Mexico by Ivan Illich, to his CIDOC center in Cuernavaca." I gave him the
manuscript the day I arrived, and I will never forget his reaction the follow-
ing morning: "This is a classic text. You have managed to put autonomy
at the center of science." Through Illich, the text made its way into the
hands of the famous psychologist Erich Fromm, who invited me to his
home retreat to discuss the new concept, which he immediately incorpo-
rated into the book he was writing at the time. In Chile itself, Fernando
Flores and other colleagues from Proyecto Cinco were also an attentive
public to our way of thinking. With Flores we formed what would come
to be a fruitful friendship, and many years later autopoiesis would figure
among the important concepts he would use to develop his own ideas. It
is hard to express what finding receptivity in people of this quality meant
to me at the time.
Meanwhile the text continued to be rejected from a growing list of foreign
publishers. So it was natural to address our own university press, and at the
end of 1972 we signed a contract that included the translation of the text by
Carmen Cienfuegos. De maquinas y seres vivos: Una teor{a de la organizaci6n
biol6gica was printed in April 1973. The original English text did not ap-
pear until 1980, when the idea had already acquired a certain popularity,
in the prestigious Boston Studies on the Philosophy of Science series. This
version contained an introduction signed by Maturana; the text, "Biology
of Cognition"; Beer's and the text in question, "Autopoiesis: The
Organization of Living Systems."'3 According to what the editor tells me,
this book has been the series' best-seller.
The brief article written in parallel to the longer text suffered a similar
fate. As I mentioned above, in addition to a succinct presentation of the idea
of autopoiesis, the intent of the article was to clarify the concept through
a minimal case of autopoiesis. Toward the end of 1970 we had come to the
conclusion that a simple case of autopoiesis would require two reactions:
one of polymerization of membrane elements, the other, the "metabolic"
generation of monomers. The latter had to be a reaction catalyzed by a third
pre-existing element in the reaction. Once we had designed this reaction
scheme, the next obvious step was to test a simulation of this minimal case
(which soon came to be called the Protobe in our discussions) using cel-
lular (or tessellated as they were called then) automata, introduced in the
1950S especially by John von Neumann. With the collaboration of Ricardo
Uribe of the School of Engineering, the simulation rapidly provided the
results our intuition had led us to expect: the spontaneous emergence in
this artificial bi-dimensional world of units which self-distinguished by
means of the formation of a "membrane" and which showed a capacity
of self-repair. The paper was sent to several journals including Science
and Nature, with results similar to those of the book: complete rejection.
Heinz visited Chile in the winter of 1973 and helped us revvTite the text
significantly. He took it back to the United States under his arm and sent
it to the editor of the journal BioSystems, for which he was a member of
the editorial board. The paper received some harsh commentary from
reviewers but not long afterward was accepted and finally published in
It is important to mention this article here because it was the
first publication on the idea of autopoiesis in English for an international
public, which led the international community to take charge of the idea.
In addition it anticipated what twenty years later would become the ex-
plosive field now called artificial life and cellular automata.
Heinz's visit in July of 1973 took place in the midst of the approaching
storm which plunged us all into an atmosphere of permanent crisis, with
desperate attempts to stabilize a country that was breaking in two. As a
militant supporter of President Allende's government, after September 11,
I found myself threatened. Military intelligence came to the department
with lists of ex-party members, and on two occasions night patrols came
looking for me at my house, where I no longer slept. I was dismissed from
my post at the university on orders "from superiors." With my family I
decided to sell everything and leave. The majority of my colleagues in the
Department of Sciences also dispersed throughout the world. With the
diaspora of the department's scientists ended a period of science in Chile,
an important stage of my personal life, and with it the context which gave
birth to the idea of autopoiesis. But naturally the idea would find new
avatars, especially outside of Chile.
From my perspective in 1995, autopoiesis does not embody by itself a new
vision of life and mind. Beside it appear other equally significant notions
such as operational closure, enaction, natural drift, and phenomenologi-
cal methodology. 1; The empirical references are consequently extended
in new programs of detailed research, be they lymphocyte networks, the
motion of insects, or cerebral imaging. It is a question of an edifice of new
epistemological concepts and empirical results which have breadth and
stand up to rigor. There have been twenty productive years during which
the period of the formulation of autopoiesis marks, in retrospect, an im-
portant milestone, as should be evident to the reader who has been patient
enough to follow me this far.
But if this slow, sustained construction, full of corsi e ricorsi as is all intel-
lectual and scientific creation, today has scientific viability, it is because it
forms part of a historic sensibility which autopoiesis intuited in 1970-71. As
I said at the start, there are no personal creations without a context: that
an idea has impact is a historical fact and not a personal adventure or a
question of "being right." Autopoiesis continues to be a good example of
alignment with something which only today appears more dearly config-
ured in various fields of the human cultural endeavor and which I identify
with the term ontological turn. That is, a progressive mutation of thought
which ends a long dominance of the social space of Cartesianism and which
opens up to the sharp consciousness that humankind and life are the conditions
for the possibility of meaning and for the worlds in which we live. That know-
ing, doing, and living are not separate things and that reality and our transitory
identity are partners in a constructive dance. This tendency I designate as an
ontological turn is not a philosophical mode, but rather a reflection of the life
of all things. Weare entering a new period of fluidity and flexibility which drags
with it the need to reflect on the way in which humans make the worlds they
live in and do not find them already made as a permanent reference.
The occasion of writing this story twenty years later would be sadly wasted
if I didn't manage to communicate the importance of expanding the horizon
to consider the profoundly social and aesthetic nature from which this idea
emerges, beyond science and biology and beyond the people named as authors.
In this sense, the story of autopoiesis has not gone out of date and still can be
read backwards in time with some profit. It is definitively a scientific invention,
and all fields require actors who are sensitive to the anomalies which constantly
surround us. These anomalies must be maintained in a state of suspension or
cultivation while one can find an alternative expression which reformulates the
anomaly as a central problem oflife and knowledge. It is also an occasion for
me to express my profound gratitude to Heinz, who was right there all along,
a full participant in this moving conversation, and beyond that, a great teacher
and dear friend.
From a festschrift for Heinz von Foerster guest-edited by Ranulph Glanville, this is a slightly
emended and corrected version of Varela, "The Early Days of Autopoiesis: Heinz and Chile."
Thanks to John Protevi for bringing it to our attention.-Eds.
1. The reader should be aware that this text has been adapted from a new preface for
the twentieth-anniversary edition of the Spanish edition of Maturana and Varela,
De maquinas y seres vivos. Thanks to Kirk Anderson for his help in the translation.
2. Syntony: A condition in which two oscillators have the same resonant frequency.
3. See in particular the "classic": Maturana, Lettvin, McCulloch, and Pitts, "Anatomy
and Physiology of Vision in the Frog."
4. Varela and Maturana, "Time Course of Excitation and Inhibition in the Vertebrate
5. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.
6. For a selection of these and other articles, see von Foerster, Observing Systems. [See
also von Foerster, "A Circuitry of Clues to Platonic Ideation." Varela wrote the
introduction for Observing Systems. Currently, the most accessible selection of von
Foerster's papers is Understanding Understanding.-Eds.]
7. A selection of his most important work is McCulloch, Embodiments of the Mind.
8. For an extraordinary account of the early days of cybernetics and the Macy Con-
ferences' see Dupuy, Aux sources des sciences cognitives. [The revised translation is
Dupuy, The Mechanization of the Mind.-Eds.]
9. Garvin, Cognition.
10. Piaget, Biology and Knowledge.
11. ClDOC: Centro Intercultural de Documentaci6n (Intercultural Documentation Cen-
12. Fromm, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.
13. Maturana and Varela, Autopoiesis and Cognition.
14. Varela, Maturana, and Uribe, "Autopoiesis."
15. Varela, Thompson, and Rosch, The Embodied Mind.
Life and Mind
From AlIlopoiesis 10 NCHropilenomenology
Allow me 10 begin on a per..,nal note. I first met Francisco Varela in the summer
of 1917 at a confe .. n" called li nd in Nature." The conference was organized
by my father. William Irwin Thompson, and Gregor)' Bateson. It took place in
Southampton, New York, at the Lindi,fame AHociation, an i"'tilUte founded
by my fat her, and was chaired by Baleson, who was then se"'ing as Lindi,farne's
scholar-in· residence. ' I wa, not quite fifteen rea" old; Francisco was almost
thiny-two. At that time Francisco was known within the cird. of second·
generation cybernelics and 'ystem, theory for hi' work with Maturan. on au·
topoiesi, and for hi. "calculus of self-referenc •. But outside thi' cirde h. was
lmown for an interview and a paper that had appeared about a year earlier in
CoEl'Oluli<",     a widely read inteUectual journal of the American coun-
tercult ure in the 1<)]1)'" The paper, called "Not One, Not Two," wa, a position
paper on the mind--body relation, giYen at another conference, al.., in,'Oh'ing
Bateson and Heinz "on F""rster, antong others. I remember reading thi' pa·
per, in which Franciscoset fonh some ideas about dualiti.,and self-reference
with application to the mi nd-bodr problem, and hJ\'ing the sense that il said
somethi ng "err imronant bUI withoU! being able fully 10 u nde"tand it. I also
remember li,tening to Francisco and the physicist DJ\'id Finkelstein arguing
about the relation betwcrn natural 'plfm, and logic and mathematic,. Fran-
cisco wa, working on the algebraic foundations of self-reference and Finkelstei n
on quantum logic. Their debate was mesmerizing to me, ",'en though I didn't
have the knowl edge or experience to follow it.
In prepari ng for thi' lecture today, I reread One, Not Two," not hav-
ing looked at it carefully for many yea", What ,truck me thi' time are these
"md, Francisco wrote at Ihe end of the paper: what I see .. an imponant
ingredient of our diKussion i, the fact Ihat a change in experience (being) is
a. nece.sary as change in unde ... tanding if any .uturing the mind-bod)" dual-
isms i. to come about."' The duali.m of concern to FTancisco here was not the
abmact. nmaphysical dualism of mental and ph)"'ical propertie., but rather the
duali.m of mind as a scientific object wrsu. mind a. an experiencing subject.
On. of the most significant and <"Xceptional "'peets of Francisco'. life and work,
from thi' early paper to hi. last "Titing> on his own ill ness and liver· transplant
experience. is that he ne .... r lost sight of thi' poin! that Ihe mind-body problem
i. not only a philo<ophicai problem, or a scienti llc problem, bUT al<o a problem
of dirfft experience.' The problem could be put thi s way. !t' , one thing to haw
a scientific represenTation of The mind a. "enactiw" - as embodied, emergenT,
dynamic, and relational; a. not homuncul.r and skull- bound; and thus in a
certain sense '" insubstanTial. But iI', another thing to haw a corresponding
direct experience of Ihis nature of the mind in one', own first · person c.,..
In more phenomenological term" it' , one thing to have a scientific repre-
sentation of the mind as panicipaTing in the "ConstiTUtion" of its intentional
obje<:ts; iI', another thing to see such constitution at work in one', own hed
experience. Francisco believed, like phenomenologi.ts and also BuddhisTS, that
This kind of direct experience is po ... ible. He also thought that unless science
and philosophy make room for this kind of experience. we will never be able
to deal efffftiwly with the mind-body proble", but will in"ead fall prey to
one or another extreme view--.eit her denying experience in favor of IhroreTi·
cal constructi on, or denying scientific insighT in favor of naive and uncriTical
Ten rea ... laTer Franci..:o and I worked hard on developing these idea. when
we began writing our book, The   Mind. in '9"86. If I may be bold, I
Think that although the ideas about embodied cognition in this book have been
widely acknowledged and a"imilaTed by Th. field, the book', central theme ha,
ye! to be fully absorbed. That theme i. the need for back-and-fonh cireulation
between scienTific research on Ihe mind and disciplined phenomenologies of
liwd experiencr. WiThout ,uch circulation. th. danger for the scientist and
philosopher i, by which I mean the inability to STOp experiencing
things and belie'-ing in them in a way one. thfO,)' .. y. i, an ill u.ion. Throreti-
cal ideas like no one" (That there are no such things as seh'es but only
neurJlsrlf-model.) or that consciou",e .. is the brain's "user illu,ion" bear
wiln .... to this predicament.' An appreciation of what Francisco and I called
th. "fundamental cireularity" of science and experience remi nds us that such
model. of consciou,ne" are objecti fication, ThaT presuppose, on an empirical
leve!, th. panicular .ubje<:ti\·ities ofthe scientiST. who aUlhor them but al<o, on
a t.ansandental levd, intentionality of conS{iousness as an priori open-
ness 10 reality, by virtue of which we are able to any comprehension of
an)1hing at aU. Experience is thus, in a certain sen,.., irreducible.
Lri me jump ahead another ten to   >996 p.per on neuro-
phenomenology. Here idea that the mind-body problem i,alo;o. problem
of experience is articulated pragmatically in relation to neuroscience and the
so-called "hard problem" of consciousne ... The hard problem of conS{iousn=
i, the problem of how and why ph)"liological p,oce"", give ri'" to experience,
It ', one thing to be able to establi,h corrdations betw .. n conS{iou,ne" .nd
brain activit); it', anotherthing to have an account that explains how and why
certain phy'iological ,uffice for conS{iousness, At present, we not
only lack such an account, but we are al", unsure about the form it would need
10 ha,,,, in order to owrcome conceptual gap between subjectiw experi -
ence and the brain. In proposing neurophenomenology as a "methodological
remed)." for the hard problem, Francisco's insight was that no purely third-
per",n, theo,etical proposal or modd would ,uffice to o\"ercome thi' gap. "In
all functionalistic account .. " he wrote, "what is missing is not the coherent
nature of the explanation but its alienation from human life. Only putting hu-
man life back in will era", that ab .. not 50me 'extra ingredient' or profound
'throrrtical fix.' '" ·Putting human life back in" means, among other things.
expanding neuroS{ien" to include original phenomenological investigations
of expe"ence. In thi' way, "the pole ente", dirfflly into the formu-
lation of the complete account," rather than being merely the refe .. nt of y.t
anoth .. abstract functionalist model.' But if is to play a role
in thi' way, then it has to be mobilized according to a rigorous phenomenol -
ogy. Pragmatically, this means that the neuros<;ence of conS{iousness nee<is to
incorporate disciplined, fim-per"'n im'esligations of experience, as illustrated
in a preliminary way by one of Francisco' , last experimental studies, which
used original first -person data to guide the ,tudy of b .. in dynamics.' On such
an approach, phenomenology is "not a convenient stop on our way to a
explanation, but an acti,'e participant in its own In Francisco', word ..
"Disciplined first-per50n accounts shoul d be an integral dement of the "alida-
tion of a neurobiological proposal. and not merely coincidental or heuri'tic
informat ion.""
In addition to thi ' new methodological approach, neurophenomenology
is also informed by an autopoietic conception of life; an enactiw conception
of mind; and a phenomenological conception of intentionality, ,ubje<:tivity,
and the liYed body. .. link neurophenomenology to what Francisco called
"renewed ontologies" of mind and life. " Thi. id .. of renewed ontologies i,
what I want to talk about today.
Life Beyond H. rd
My first step is to rfeast the term. in which the hard problem of consciousness
is usually stated. Consid.r Thomas Nagrl 's classic formulation of Ihe hard
problem: "If mental processes are physical processes, then there is something
it i, like, inlTimiC"dlly, to und .. go certain physical processe,. What il is for .uch
a Ihing to be the case remains. mystery. ""
Nag.! '. point i, the now familiar one that we don·t understand how an
objKtiye physical process could be sufficient for or constitutive of the subjK-
tive character of a conscious mental proc ...... But stating the problem thi' way
embeds it within the Canesian framework ofthe umental " ... "us the "phy'ical, '
and this framework actually promotes the explanatory gap and so is incapable of
resoh·ing it . What we need imtead is a frameworn that doesn't set "mental" and
"physi<:al"' in ion to each olh .. or reduce one to the other (" not one, nol
two"). We need to focu, on a kind of phenomenon that is already beyond this
gap. Life or living being is precisely this kind of phenomenon. For biology, liv-
ing bei ng;, org,misJnJ; for phenomenology, it i, 'I/bjedi!'i/)'. Where
these two meet i. in whal phenomenologisl' caJll he Iive,1 boil)'. What we need.
and what neurophenomenology aim, for. is an account of theli,·ed body that
integrates biology and phenomenology and so goes "beyond Ihe   What
happens if we substitute "body" for "physical" in Nager. statement?
If mental process .. are bodily processes, then Ihere is something it is like,
intrimically, to undergo <enain bodily processes.
Dot, this ,ubstitution make any difference? If there belongs to cmain bodily
processes something it is like to undergo them. I hen those bodily processes are
experiences. They have a subjKtiY' or fi"l-per<on character, which they could
nOilack without cea.>ing to be experiences. They are !"dings, in the broad sense
William 'ames had in mind when he used the word "feeling" "to design ale all
states of consciousness m .. ely a, such" and that Damasio has revived by de-
scribing ferlings as "bearing witness 10 life within our   The problem
of what it is for mental processes to be also bodily processes is thus in large pan
the problem of ... hll' it ;, for s"bjrdiv;tr "".I frdi ng '0 br " boililr phmomenoll.
In phenomenological language: What is il for a pnysicalliving body
kiblic/,er   to be also a liwd body (uib/korperlich", LeibJ!
It's tempting 10 call thi' problem the bo</y-ooli)' probkm. I offer it a.a - radical
reformulation of the hard problem." In putting lhe problem thi'
way, I am relying on the phenomenological distinclion between the body as a
m.uerial thing   and the body as a li"ing and feeling being (Leibl. Thi'
di,tinction i, between two mod •• of appearance of one and the same bod)', not
between Iwo bodies or two propertie, (in the property-duali,t ,."",,). Hence the
explanatory gap i. now belween two tYP'" withi none I)"pology of embodiment
or living being, not between two opf'Osed and reifi.d ontologie. ("mental " and
"ph)"ical"). Furthermore. thi' gap is no longer absolute Ix-cau"" in order 10 .tate
it we nero to make common refe .. nce on both ,;d .. to life or /ivi"g bei"g.
Th ... Iwo poim' are phi l<lSOphicany nontrivial . In Ihe hard problem as da,-
,icany conuiwd, the gap i. ab",,]ule Ix-cau .. th ... i. and can be no conceptual
unity to the mental and the physi cal, consciou, ness and the brain. Consciou.-
n .... is «Juatro with qualia, which are supposed to be phenomenal properties
Ihat resist functional anal)"i,. while the body is f<juatro with .tructure and func -
tion' with m«ehani,m. " Given the", equi,·alene .. , on. must eilher mechanize
consciou,ness in order to redue< it to a brain state or be a property dualist. Thi.
way of dividing up the uni",r .. i, thoroughly Cane.ian. Although phy.icalist
philosophy of mind today .. jects Descartd •• ub,tance dualism, it maintains
both the underlying conceptual .. paration of mind and life and the «Juation
oflife with me .. mechani,m."
For neurophenomenology. by cont""t, the guiding issue i.n't the contrived
problem of how to deri"e a subjectivist concept of consciousne .. from an ob-
jectivist concept of the body. I nstead, it'. to undersland the e",,,x,,,cr of /i"ing
'ubj .... ti'ity from IMng being, inc/w/ing the of /i,illS bd"S by
living snbjectivity. It', this issue of rn'erg<"nce that neurophenomenology ad-
d .. ""., not the Cartesian version of the hard problem.
The Strong Continuity of Life and Mind
Implicit in thi' step of "casting th. term, of the hard problem i, the id.a of a
slrong co",inui'yoflife and mind. One way to put this idf3 i. that life and mind
,hare a common pattern OT organization, and th. organizational properties
characteri,t ic of mind are an enrichro version of Iho .. fundamental to lif •. "
Mind i. li fe-like, and life i. mind-like. But. simpler and more provocative
formulation is this one: Living i, cognitiml.
Thi. propo.ition comes from Maturana and Varda.theory of autopoi -
esis." Some h .. 'e taken the "is' in Ihi' propositi on as the "is' of identity (liv-
ing = cognition)." othe .. as the "is" of predication or class inclusion (aUhfe i.
The origin' of the prop<»ition go back to Maturana', 1970 paper.
"Biologyof Cognition." There he used the concept of cognition widdy to mean
the operation of any living '}"Stem in the domain of interactions 'pe<:ified by
its "iKular and self-referential organization. Cognition i, effe<:tiw conduct in
thi' domain of interactions. not the repre"'ntation of an independent en\'iron·
ment. In Maturan.·, words. "Li,;ng ,ysJe"" are cogniti"e ')">lem" ",,,I living a,
a prous< i, prou" of cognition. Thi' ".tenlent i, valid for al! organism" with
and without a nermus ,)",tem.""
FranciKo later came to prefer a different wa)' of explicating the "Ii\'ing is
cognition· propo,ition: Liling is 5l'fI",· making. Consider motile bacteria ,wim·
ming uphil! in a food gradient of ,ugar. The "dl, tumble about until they hit
on an orientation that inc rea"" their <xpo.sure to ,ugar, at which point they
,wim forward, up-gradient. toward the zone of greatest sugar concentration.
Thi' behavior happen' ooause the bacteria are able to sense chemically the
concentration of ,ugar in their local e""ironment through molecular receptors
in their membranes, and they are able to mo.·e fo rward by rotating their flagella
in coordination like a propeU ... These bacteria are of course .utopoietic. They
.1", embody a dynamic sen",rimotor loop: the way they move (tumbling or
'wimming forward) depend, on what they sen ... , and what they sense depend,
on how they mow. Moreowr, the sen""imotor loop both e1pre,,,,, and i,
subordinate<! to the ,)'".m·s autonomy, to the maintenance of its .utopoi",i,.
As. resuit, every sensorimotor interaction and every discriminable feature of
the environment embodies or reflects the bacterial pe"pective. For instance.
although .ucrose i, a real and present condition of the phy,icochemical en-
vironment . its ".tu, as food i, not. That 5UCTOse i, a nutrient i'n' t intrinsic
to the ,tructure of the ,ucrose molecwe: it' , a relational feature, linked to the
bacterium', metaboli,m. Sucro", hd> ,ignificance or value as food, but only in
the milieu that the organism itself brings into exi'tence. Francisco summarize<!
thi' idea by saying that th.nks to the organi,m' s autonom)" it' world or niche
ha, a "sUTplu, of ,ignificance· compare<! with the physicochemical en\'iron-
ment." Living i,n', 'imply a cognitive process: it', al", an emor;\'/' proce .. of
sense-making. of bringing signification and \'al ue into existence. In this way
the world ooomes a place of va/met, of attraction and repul5ion, approoch or
escape. Thi' idea can be depi<te<! in the diagram below."
U,ing thi' representation, I would like to expand the propo.sition "Ii"ing i.
sense· making" in the following ",ay:
I.   = aUlopo;rsis. By thi' I mean the th •• i , that the three <riteria of au·
topoiesis---(i) a boundary, containing (ii ) a mole<:ular reaction network,
.. ,O", •• ,,\ ion.t'to,"'.
n. ",onol "" wo,"
"'''''""' networu
tiff MIND 83
Do .. oi n 01 Int .. O<lion.
So ... 11<
-Uvins _         ( .. d,own),
Ihal (iii) produce5 and n-gener die. ilself and the boundary-----'olre n«e"""ry
and ,ufficient for Ihe organization of minimal life.
l. A,ltopoit"5js .."tail,   at a "'if. A physical autopoietic system, by
,'inue of it. operational closure. gi"es rise to an individual or ",If in the
form of a living body. an organism,
,. EM/erg,ncr of ",If enlili/, rmergencr of world. The emergence of a sdfis
.lso by neaMity the emergence of a correlatiw domain of interaction<
proper to that ,,,It.n Umwdr.
4. Em'rg,nc, of "'If   world =   The organi.m', world i. the
",me it mak .. of th. environment. This world i. a place of'ignificance
.nd ,·alene<. as a r .. uh of the global action of the organism,
}. Sm",-n",kj"g= cognjtion (perceplion/anion). St n",-making i. tantamount
to cognition, in the minimal .. n", of "iable ",nsorimotor conduct. Such
conduct is oriented tlTh'ard and subject to ,ignification and ,-alene • . Sig-
nification and "alene< do not preexi.t "out there" but are enacted or
constituted by th. living being. Living entails ",n", -making, which equal.
At thi s point you may want to obj .. t that the propo,ition "Iif. i. cognition"
conna". cog"jliml with ad"pliitiOlI. Margaret Boden make, thi' charge.'" She
thinks il would be better to u'" the term "cognition" more strictly to avoid the
implication that autopoie,i, n .... " .. ily involye. cognition,
I disagre • . We need to ask wh.t exactly is meant by "adaptation." For Nee-
Darwini.n, <volution im'ot.· .. the oplimmllio11 of III/"pimimi through natural
se!",tion. But from the autopoietic perspe<:!i,·e. " 'o!U!ion in\"Oh'es simply
ron""-mlo,, of <l<lnpratimr. as long as a living being doesn't disintegrate but
maintai", it. aU!opoieti, integrity, it is ipS(} fi'cro adapt.d because its mode of
sense· making continues to be , .. able. From this point of view, adaplation is an
innriant background condition of alilik "Cognition, " on the other hand, in
the present context means the "lise-making act ivity ofli"ing, which underlies
the conse,,'ation of adaptation- no sense-maki ng, no living, no con", .... ation of
adaptation. Notice that thi' way ofthinkingabout cognition restson an expli cit
hypothesis about the natural roots of intentionality: j"l""tio""UI), or;"", from
/lrr opnnlionai dosure of an all/onomor" ,),slr"" who" p"",dlgnl "nd ''''nl'''''/
CO" j, an auropoltrlc system. This hypothesi' also amounts to a I'roposalabour
howto connect the ph.nomenological conceptio n of intentionality to biology
and complex systems theory.
At the other end of the spectrum from Bod. n, the biologist Lynn
speaks of "microbial consciousness" and suggests that the "conscious <:ell " is
the .... olutionary ant.cedent of animal cousciousne" and the nervou, system."
And the phenomenologist Maxine Sheets-]ohn' tone, in TIIr Prillracy of MOI'r-
merit, argues that bacteria aren't simply cogniti,", but embody a rudimentary
kind of corporeal con""iousness.'"
You might be t.mpted to dismiss this id.a of cellular consciousness out
of hand. But let's consider the idea for a moment. "Consciousness" can
many meanings, but the one most reiennt here is seminler, the feeling of being
ahe and .xercising effort in mo.'ement . Maine de Biran wrote of Ie ""nlim'n!
,Ie I'exi,w,er. Both Damasio and Panksepp tal k about. primitive frr/jrlg of
""If" Phenomenologists, from Patocka to Shee ts-lohnstone to Barbaras, call
attenti on to the importance of mot'elnen! for understanding the intention-
ality of consciousne ... " Marguli., like Rodolfo Uinas, describes conscious
thought as mental mo,'emenl." She beli.ves that as brain acti"ity it derives
from ancient motile bacteria, which haye I.ft their eYolutionarr stamp on the
cellula, aKhit"'ture and communication of neurons , One might summariu
these threads by <;lying that consciou",e .. as selll ience is a kind of pr;mi/i\"eiy
"if-aWl'" /i,'elin,,, or animation of II,e body. Does this emerge wit h life itself,
with the "ery first living bodies- namely, bacterial cell,! Hans Jonas po,es the
problem clearly:
At which point ... in the enormous spectrum oftife are we justified in draw-
ing a line, attributing a   of inwardn ... to the far side and an initial
· one" to the side nearer 10 0>1 Where else but at the very beginning of li fe
can the beginning of inwardne" be located!'"
lIf[ AND MIND 8s
Whether we gi"e this inwardness the name of feeling, !'KeptiYene" or ,e-
sponse to stimuli, volition, or something else-it harbors, in some degree
of "a waren .... ," the absolute intere't of the organ is", in it. own being and
Thi' "absolutr interest of the organism in its own being and continuation" i.
what SpinolJ called eo''''fU'. the "mncern" to exist, to carry on being, that be-
longs to life. Jona. oose,,'" that Spino"" with the knowledge of his time, didn't
realize that this concern · can only operate a. a mOYement that goes constantly
beyond the gi\'en state of things " and so is ne ... er a matter of mere preservation."
We, how""er, can observe that Jon ... with the knowledge of his time, didn't
realize that this self-transcending mo,'ement i, a natura! consequence of a cer-
tain kind of self-organizing, morphodplamic .ystem--namely. an autopoietic
one. The self-t ranscending movement oflife is none other than metabolism,
and metabolism i. none oth .. than the biochemical instantiation of the auto-
poie1ic organilJtion. That organilJtion mmt remain in\'ariant-otherwisethe
organi.m dies----but the only way autopoiesi, can .tay in place is through the
ince:ssant material Aux of metabolism. In other word" the operational c/o,",,,
of autopoiesi. demand, that the organi.m be an open 'yne,,,, Jona, called thi'
condition the "needful freNo",'" of the organi.m. The organism i. never bound
to its materia! composition al any given imtant. but by the same \()ken it has
to change because means death,
Coming back to the que:stion about consciomne • ., I think that life>, sense-
making i. a manifestation of the organism', autonomy and coupling, but not
necessarily of consciousness. In suppon of my preference for thi' ,'iew I would
appeal to the following considerations, First, being "phenomenally conscious'
of something would ,eem to entail being able to form intentions to act in
relation to it." It'. hard to make sense ofth. idea of being conscious of some-
thing, in the sense of subjecti ... ely experiencing it. while having no intentional
3(ce" to it whatso ..... r. But there seem. no reason to think that autopoietic
selfhooo.l of the minimal cellular,.,n in\'ol"" any kind of intentional acc ....
on the pan of the organism to its sense-making. s.,cond. it seems unlikdythat
minimal autopoietic .. Hhooo.l in","'., phenomenal selfhooo.l or .ubjectivity,
in the phenomenological sense of a pre-reAecti ... e self-awareness constitutive
of a phenomenal first -per,.,n perspeeti\·e." Rat her, this would seem to require
the reflexive elaboration and interpretation of life processe, pro ... idN by the
nervous .ystem. Finally, it'. important to situa tr consciousness in relation to
dynamic, unconscious processe, of life regulation. and this becomes difficult
if one projects consciousn .... down to the cellular lew!.
Teleology . nd "I\utopoieti< M3<hin""M
A number of thing' said so far sugge't that I iving being' are in so"", sense
teifOlogical: organi,m, haw an interest in their own being and continuation:
they realize a dynamic impul .. to carry on being, they are al"'aY' impelled
beyond their present condition- these are tdeological mod .. of description.
"Living i, .. n .. -making" also sound, like a teleological description becau .. it
characterizes the organi,m as orimtN to",ard the sen .. it makes of it' em'iron-
ment. · s.en .. is reminiscent ofthe ph.nomenological notion of inten-
tionali ty, which ' ignifies not a 'tatic representational "aboulne,," but rathe. an
act of intending, a purposiw striving focu .. d on fi nding ",tisfaction in funher
cognit iw acquisitions and experience." Behind this concept of intentionality
we can see the metaphor or kinaesthetic imag. schema (in Ulkolf and fohnson',
.. nse) of self-generated and gool-dire<cted movement, the motility of life.
Yet how aT< we to understand thi' suggestion ofteifOlogy in .dation to the
thfOry of autopoiesis, which in its original formulation ",a, m«hanistic and
ant i-teleological, Maturana and VJfela . xplicitly Jj"ing 'ystems with
machines and deniN that living 'Y'tems are teleological: "Living system" a,
physical autopoietic machines, aT< purposel ...   By "machin." they
dearly did not mean an artifact. They mrant any system whose operation is
determined by its rdational organization and the way that organization is muc-
turany reali,.d.'" Autopoietic ,y"ems main"in their own organiution constant
through material change and thus hom<ostati, (or ho"",od}namic) systents
of a special son. "'
At this point we need to ask whether having a .. Iational organization is suf-
ficient for being a machine, We can also wonder about the notion of emergence
in this context. Th. work Francisco and I did on .mergence and whole-sys"m
causation would .. em tomn!]i ct ",ith his view that autopoiesi, can be realized
in a cellular automaton." In a cellular automaton, there is arguably no genu-
ine emergence and system cau"'tion be<:au .. every unit is local and the global
pattern is in the eye of the obse.ver. argued, howewr, that in real living
systems, such as a cell o. large-scale neural assembly, there is emergence and
circular causality. such that the sysum mo,'es as a whole and con't. ai ns the
,tat .. of its components.
At this juncture, J think it maybe u .. ful to draw from another line of work
in thfOretical biology, the work of Robert Rosen. Rosen and Francisco share
many idea" although oddly they never mention each other in their writings.'"
Ro .. n's dictum i, that organi,ms are dilferent from machines becau,", they
are "dosN to efficient causation. "" In an organi,m, but not in a machine.
lIf[ AND MIND 87
."ery efficient cause is produced inside tne organism. More abstractly stated,
Rosen argues that in a relational model of an organism "'eryfunction (i n the
mathematical sen"" of. mapping) is entailed by another function within the
model. whereas in a relational model of a machine thisdosure doe.n't obtain.
and one has to go outside the sY5tem and appeal to the en"ironment. As Rosen
puts it, there', an "impowrishment of entailment" in a machine compared
with an organism. " In Francisco's language. this difference corresponds to
the difference between an autonomous .y.tem with operational dosure and a
heteronomous system defined by oUiside control." But Rosen al", argues that
dosureand maximal entailment inan organism can' t be,imulated bya Turing
machin .. .. More pr"isel},. h. shows that a certain cia .. of relational model,
caned Metabolism-Repajr systems or I M,K) systems., in which every function i.
entailed by another function inside the 'ystem. aren't Turing-computable. On
thi' basis., he argues that any material realization of an (M.K] ,y.tem, ,uch as
a cell, can' t be a me<:hanism or machine, Thi' raises the question of what Ihe
relation is between Rosen' , ( .... R) splem, and autopoieti, .y.tem" In a r ... m
article, Let,lier, "larln. and "lpodOli, argue that au/opojdic ' ystem, are a ,,,b5l'r
afRosen', (M ,R) .... ery autopoietic 'yste", i, operationally <'<lui,.lent to
an ( ... ,R) 'y'tem (but not conversely, because a generic [M,R] syst.m lacks the
aUiopoietic Pl'Ope")' of generating inown   and internal topology)." It
wouW seem to followlhat Imlopojetjc sys,em, "re '101 TI"jng-compli/Ilbk.nd that
a physicalautopoietic system- an organism or li"ing being- i' not a machine
(at least according to one abslract and powerful concept of m"hanism).
If Rosen i, right about life being noncomputable. then this result i, an im-
po"ant challenge to the original pb .. ment of autopoi .. i, in the category of
cybernetic mechanism. It also challenges the hypothesis that aUlopoiesi, can
be captured by .. llular automata model, and aUo,", .. for a ' tronger not",n of
emergence than the emergence we ",e in cellular automata. Emergence is pre,-
ent when there i, no way to analyze a system into preexi'ting parts and resultant
whole. Maturana and Varela, and Ro",n, in different ways argued that Ihi' sort
of analysis or "fractionation" fails in the face of the organi,m', ",If-ref .. ential
organization, Here, pan and whole are completely interdependent: an emergent
whole is produ{ed by a continuous interaction of its parts., but these parts can-
not be characterized independently from the whole.
W. can now return to the issue oftdeology. Francisco, in hi' artid .. up to
the early '990s., continued to re,i't th. idea thar autopoi.,i, in\'ol\'ro anything
teleological. " But in one of his last .ssay' he changed his mind. This .,say, writ -
ten wilh Andrea, Weber, conerrns autopoiesis and th. problem of teleology
and the organism from Kant' , of/wlgem"" ," The .. Francisco argues
that Idrology ari,,,, from {wlOpoi",i, and i, none other than organi,m's
sense-making. Yet strangely he doesn't even mention, let alone discuss., the
change from hi' earlier to later view, nor the rea50ns for the change. Nor does
he mmment on his earlier of the life-as· machine notion----anothor
s.triking omission considering that one of Kant's main points W.IS that organism,
are "natural purposes" by virtue of being self-organizing and must br judg...:l
to br fundamentallrdifferent from machin ...
Francisco'. change of view refk<cts hi' immersion in phenomenology al the
end of his life. Ewn his laler articles disa"owing teleology we .. wrinen prior
to thi' neurophenomenological phase,'" The change of ,'iew also .. flfft, his
d""per ,tudy of traditions of biolog;c-al thought influencrd by Kant. Th.
of teleology Maturana and Varela criticiz...:l in A"topoie<i, ",,,/   W.lS
leirOlIO"'Y or Neo-Darwinian functionali,tic explanation. But the of tde-
ology Francisco later discussed is Kant' , idea that the organism i, a "n.tural
purpose" becau,. it i. a self-organizing being," francisco came to think thaI
autopoiesis pro\'ided " naturali,tic way of grounding, reformulating, and .d-
.'ancing the Kantian ,-iew of living beings as teleological, in a way Kant thought
was impoMible."
Francisco never tried to his earlier ,,,,d later about tel-
eology. but I think it might be possible to do 50 in the following way. The
main point h. and Maturana insist...:l upon in Amopoi",i, mrd COK"i/iOlr is that
tel<'Ology doe, not belong to the "mopoieric org"nization, This poi nt remains
,'alid: in setting out the conditions for a self-producing organization in the
molffular domain. no i, mad. to noti ons such as "end," "purpose,"
"goal," or "function." On the other hand. the main point of the later ""i-
,ion is that teleology i, none other than sense-making. Sense-making is not a
feature of autopoietic but rather of the co"p/;,'g of • concrete
autopoieti c 'y'tem and its environment. In other word,. teleology is not .n
intrimic organizational propeny bUlan relational one th.t belongs
to a concrete autopoietic system interacting with its environment. let try to
indicate where th .. reflections ""em to lead. If l iving beings .,. not reducible
to algorithmic m"hani,m and if tel<'Ology i, an relational propeny.
nOi an intrinsic organizational one. we ar .. faced with the prospect of a
new kind of biological naturali,m beyond the classical opposition of mecha-
ni,m and teleology. Francisco', intuition WJ.> that such a naturalism would be
to offer strong bridges to but also that phenomenology
could contribute to it. formulation, Thus naturalizing phenomenology, for
Francisco. always implied a corresponding phenomenological ""oncepmal -
ization of nature.
lIf! AND MIND 89
In preparing this talk, I w .. struck by the thought that maybe one .. ason
Francisco w,i>e<l hi. view about Ieleologr, though perhaps not a consciously
articulated w'" his immersion in the life proceM of hi. own chronic and
lerminal illne ... Francisco eXl"'rienced firslhand, in an inten .. and singular
war, life' ... n .. -making. He realized itthrough his experience of his own living
being, as it suffered the changing anti-viral treat ments, the her Irampl.1l1 and
its "offering" of life." the chemotherapy. the faligue of 'ickn .... and hi. sci<n-
tific and phenomenological curiosily about living and dying. Using" Freudian
idiom. Frallcisco called this curi",ity his I would add that
hi s epistemo-philia was unique, in it. embodiment of Buddhi.t mental pre.-
mce. mathematical insight. phenomenological imuition. and an exceptional
biologi.t'. "feeling for the   Franci",o" r .... i.iting the problem of
teleology refleet> h i. deep insight that r he min, probl.", i, Jim awl/o"m05r
problem 0fli,·.d ""pt'ri."u. As he and Weber wrote in thi.l",t article on life
and teleology. commenting on Kam and Jon •• ,
It is actually by experience of our teleologr---<>ur wish to exist funher on
as a subject, not our imputalion of purposes on objects-thai tel<'Ology
l>e<:ome. a real rather lhan an intellectual principle .... &fo .. being scien-
li,t, we are firsl li,-ing beings. and as such we haw the evidence of intrinsic
teleology in And, in observing other creatures muggling to continue
Iheir existenc<'- "taning from 'imple bacteria that actiwly swim away from
• chemical repellent- we can. by our own evidence, understand teleology
"' Ihe gowming force of the real m of the li>'ing. Th<'Orie. aboul Ihe liv-
ing can only be conceived from the fragile and concerned perspe<:live of
the hing itself: [and then quoting Jonas] " ... life can only be known by
(an Only Known by Life
To dose this talk. I would like to comment on this propo,ition that life can
onlybe known bylife. Theclaim is a transcendental one in a Kanti.n and Hu, -
serli.n sen .. : it'. aboul the conditions for the possibility of knowing life, gi\'en
rhat we do actually have biological knowledge. Con.ider the qu<'Stion. how i,
it that we are able 10 recognize or comprehend the form or d)-namic pattern
of autopoi.,i. in Ihe firsl place? Would this pallern be rffognizable at all from
some ideal obje<:tiw standpoine Or is it )'Jlher thai able to .. coguilt this
pallern only l>e<:ause it ..... mbl .. the foml of our own bodily selfhood, which we
know firsthand! Here. in brief. "the phenomenologist'. answer: (, ) An adequale
account of certain observable phenomena requi re.lhe concepts orS'm;,,,, ( in
Ihe original Kantian sense of a ... If-organizing whole) and amopo;fSi<. (2) The
source of Ihe meaning of Ih .. e concepts i. Ihe Ii",d firsl-p",san,
li"ed experi.nce of our own animale, bodily exislence. fJ) Th .... concepls and
Ihe biological accounts in which Ihey figure aren'l derivable, ewn in principle,
from same ob ... rver-independent, noninderical, objecli"e, physico-functional
deKriplion (according 10 Ihe physical ist mph of s<i.nee). As Jonas pUI S iT, no
di ... mbodied and purely intellect ual mind, li ke Laplace's di"i ne malh.malician,
would be able to comprehend t he [om, of the organism simply from a complere
knowledge of t he microph)'sicai state of things . To make the link from maner
to life and mind, from physic, 10 biology, one needs concep" like o'!'m;,,,, and
au/opo;";,, but such concepts are a"ailabl e onl)' to an .mbodied mind WiTh
firsThand .xperience of it. own living body. In 11,lerleau- Ponty's words, "'f ""
P";' comp"""" 1, [m,etion d" co'p' vivmll 'I"'''' i'Mcompli"""r   rr
11m, /" "",u,...ou it 'U;, UII corps q"; >I' I",.., ' '£T:j I"   (I cannO! understand
the function of The living body except by enaCl i ng it mysriC and except in '"
far as [am a body which rise. toward the world).'"
Francis<o said ThaT the "basic ground" of neurophenomenology is t he "irre-
ducible nat ure of co ns<ious aperienc." .. Lived experience, he wroTe, is "where
we . tart from and where we all mUSllink back to, like a guiding t hread."" Let u.
be clear about what this meam. Experience is irreducible not because it P"""'=
metaphysically peculiar "propeni .. " thaT can't Ix squ. ezed into ",me .. ifi ed,
physicali" model of t he uni ... rse, after the fash ion of contemporary propeny
dualism. It's irreducible be .. use of its ineliminable trans<.ndental chara<:t.r:
lired experi.nce is always already presupposed by any statement, mod.1, or
Thoory, and The liYed body is an " p,;o,; in" arian! of lived experience. Experi-
ence is die U"n;merxel,bmkdl---{he "ungobehindable." There is no duali'm or
idealism hor., the TranKendentallived body i. no other than t he empiricalli\"ing
bod}", it's . imply that body rf-""",/Jewi in a certain way- namely, a. where we
starT from and where we must all li nk back to, like a guiding thread.
I began thi. talk on a personal not., and I would like toend it that way too.
Th. first conversation [ ..... r had wit h Francis<o was whil e we d ro'" togeTher
WiTh my fat her from New York CiTy to Southampton to t he "Mind in Nature"
conference in '977. NOT long before I had dis<overed t he writ ings of Borges,
which 1 proceeded to d .. ·our in The way only an adolescent mind can. Somehow
Francis<oand I fell into a conversation about literature, and myen-
thusi .. m for Borges. FranciKo preferred Neruda. About a year later Francis<o
gave me a copy of the English t ranslalion ofNeruda's Af,,"oi,.., ins<ribed, "To
han Thomp",n, wiTh low and friendship, Francisco, Sept.mbe r 1975," which
I ' Ii ll haw to this day. On t he fi rst page of this b ook, Neruda " Tites. " Perhaps T
didn't live just in my self. per haps I lived the Ii",", of ot hers .. , , My li fe is a life
put together from all those Ii",",: the H,'''' of t he ro<'t." Th ... word, expr ... a
sentiment t hat FranciS(o', t hought and life ('(ho in '" many way'. Speaking for
myself, my talk today is an expression of my deep grat itude for the part icipation
ofFranciS(o' s life in mine.
Thi' «xl "'" 10 Ih< co"f"mc< "IX fa"lol"' i6< olla nmrophmomt'oologi<: U"
11O"""ag< ol Fr""ci..-o Va,da" (From aulopoi,,;, 10 "<",ophmo",,,,oIogy: 11 Irib"l< 10
Franci"" Va,n., ). lUI" J&- :W. '004, allh, Sorbo",,, ;Ir 1'h< I<xl "'" "" ;"<11 '0 ""
mu/ aloud, and 11u,,', ""i,I<.1 IIu: "rg<' 10 nll« il f<J il mil ",,,,a;,, I"" 10 ;1, ;"'p;,a-
lion ""d P"'i'<''"''
J. Th. conference r.n Augu>t '-4- )1, ' 977. The pan icip.n!> w.'" lewi> B.oI.muth, Gr<g-
ory Il..t<'>On, M.ry Cath..-ine Il..l<son, David Finkel .. ein, D.vid ''0', William Irwin
Thompson. Fr.mciID:> Vareta, . nd An""r Y OIln" It took pl""< while B.t"",n w ..
w01 king on the manuscript of hi. I." book, M;"J alra Nal"'" A N<C<f''''y Ulrily.
2 . v .. oI., Mat u", "., and UJib<, "Autopoie>i': Maullan. and V.",!. , A,"opo;rlic Sy>-
V.,ol., "A u k u!", for Self-Il..f.,once."
J. VOld., 'On Ob ... 'l"Ving N.tural Sy.\om.· .nd "Not Ono, Not 'fwo."
4. V., oI •. "NotOno, Not Two, " 6/.
So V., oI., "!ntim ... Di>l;rnc<>."
6. M .. ';ng", /k;"E No o"r, C"""",,,,,.<., upl,,''''.!'
7. V., oI •. J.lS,
8. Ibid.
9. LKh.ux, and V..-el., "Guidins the Study of Dyn. min by l'ir>t-p.,liOn D,,.:
10. V., oI., "Nourophenom.nolosy." J.I.j.
n. tbid,
u . V., oI •. "The N" u"lization of I'heno"",,,,,logy the T.,no« ndrnce 01 Naturo."
'J. Nasel, "Wh"t r. It I.;\;eto lie. 8,,1" '75.
' 4. Roy,P .. ito., P.cooud, and V.reI., "Ileyond tho Gap."
'5. 111< I'ri"cipk> of l'fyc/ooWgy, ISS: I), m .. io, lAok,ngfon- Sp;"oza, ,.0.
,6, Thompson,OO V.",I", "R.Jdi""! Embodim.nt": Thomp"' n, .\ j'"d;n Lif<.
". See Ch.lm.", rh< CO"""',, M;"d .nd " Moyin& Forward on t he !>robkm of Con-
o<iOUJln,,"." and Kim, M;"d;" a I'hpical World,
' So Thi. i.I d".rly .. ·iJ.e nt, for in,unce, in the wKle.preod yi<w , hot til<" i. no h.,d
probl.m of life because lif. i. not hi ng but >lructure and fulKtion , wh ..... 'here i.
for" llK.u"" phy>ic.ol >lruct u".nd [u!Ktion logic>lly unJerJelormi n<
phrnomenoi <o no<iou.n ... , s.. Ch.lme", 111< ('"""",U, M, ,,,/, ,0<.-7, , 6<;\ , and
"Moying Forward on ,il< !'toblem of COnsciou."" .. ,· 5--';,
' 9. Godfrey-Smit h, "S!"'oc ... nd o.wey on Life Mind,' 1]0; ...... 1'" Wh""ler,
"Cognition', Comi ng Home."
w. M>luron. ,"d Au/opoin-i, "nd C"8" ilion.
ll. S""".n. "Life = Cogoi,;"n" .nd "Cognition = life."
n. Il<mrgine and Stew. rt, • Autopoi .. i> . nd Cognition;" Bitbol .nd Lui';,    
wi,h Of withou, Cognition."
1J . Motu .. n •• "lIiolO\,")' of Cognition: 'J. Original empho.i>.
,",. Vare], . "Organi.m" .nd "Vanero, of life." The .. cond art ie!' w., wrinen for
conf .. enc< in '99' .
15. The ",ure< of til< i> V .. e", "I' an.rno of Life."
16. BoJen, "Autopoi<'"l i •• nd l ife: 40.
' 7. M.rguli" "The Co=iom CoI1."
18. Shects-Iohn>lone. TIl, PrimllCY of Mom",,,I. \ 1, n .
19. D. m."i", Th< f«/i,'i of WI",I   Voni=pp. "Th< Vericon",io"" Subo, ... ,.,
of Conseiou",,, •. "
JO. P .. "" ..... /Jody. Communil)" umguag" World: Sl1"",-loho"one, ne Primo,), of
Mo, .. BarN .. o, -The M",'ement of t he Li>illg."
3'. M.rguli., "Th. ConKio". Cell"; Uinh 1of III< VOTl<x.
J1. )on." Morla/il)' and Momlil)" 63; "'" . Iso Ion ... TIl< Ph,no"",,"" of Lifo, \7. SS.
B. I""." A/orlaiily anll Moralill', 69; "'" . ),0 Ion.,. 'fh, Ph,no"""",, of Life, 84.
34. Ion •• , -lliological Found.,,;"n. of Indi>;,y: '-\J.
JS. Hur ley, CO"5<io,,,,,,",, i" Action, 14_.
]6. 7..ahavi, &J!-A"""",,, and AII<rily.
J7. s.., Held. - Hu • ..,rJ', Phenom.n<>logicai M" tJJOd: '4.
]8. Mat"mn •• nd Var.t.., Au/opoin-i, "nil C"8" ilion, 86.
J9. Ibid .. 75, 77. Vor.u ",,)', in. footno,,,, "In tIl i. boooIc 'moehin.' .nd ")">""n>' aT< u..,.j
in",,-d!.ng .. bly. They oo"io""ly carry diff .. "", bu"ho diff.rences
or. in"",n,;'I. for my purpoli<, <Jlcept in ""'ing ,110 rd ation bet",,,,, o ,h. history of
biological """hani>m .nd the modem tendency for 'r>tomic an.l)">i •. .. ""d
'Y'tom. point to ,hech .. ac1<,iL.,ion of. d ... of uniti .. in 'onn> of 'Il<'ir org.1Oi",-
'ioo" (fun"pb ofBiorogirnl .'I",onolll)'> 7).
40 . . .. n. and Au'opoin-i, "nd C"8" ilion, 78. 79.
4'. Thomp><>n .nd V .. e", "RaJi<all'.mboJ imon'."
42. Like fro ociseo. Koo.en died not long .go (in '9'IlI) .nd '00 )'Qung (.ix'y-four) from
complica'ion> of . n iUn., •. H. Ii"...;! in my hom< cotln'ry, Can.d.., . nd I ' egm th.t
I didn't study hi, worx in time to ,..Jx '0 him and f,..ncisco .bout their ide ... A
",orth",hil. oci<n,ific .nd epi"emological proj«:t would I>< '0 ....... ' heir ,hoor;'"
in rel.,ion '0 one ano,h..-, and I'm happy to ><'< that ,he Chile.n Ie:un ofleteli",>
. nd N' I><gun ,hi. work in • .'Iutopoietic . 0J ( .. .. ) 5)'>10""."
4). Ro,"",.lif' 11",1[, ' -1-\.
44. IbCd" '46.
45. Vard.> fu,,,ipb of Biologiml Au/onomy.
46. Ro,"",. lif' 11",lf.nd £''''J'' Oli Lifr IIsd[,
tiff MIHD 93
47. L..!oh.".. M.rin • • nd MpodoLi, • • Autopoi<lic and (M •• ) Sy ..  
4S. V .. oI •• ·Org.n;'m" .nd ·p.ttem, of l if •. "
49. .nd V .. d., "jjf •• fter K.nt:
5<>. V .. eI •• 'Orgm;,m" .nd ·<"fn> oflife."
5'. K.nt. Critique of ludg<>m<m 1'95'1.
5>. R«.ntly I fooi"ov<"foo >em<< cotn">p< fr.nciseoand I had in june '99\1
.bout thi' i>.ue of teirolO!.1'. It begm bee.o,. I pointed oot to him that hi. commit-
ment to phmomenology "",mod incomi.t<nt with hi. old", po.ilion on tol«>loj;y
with .. W. had both ind<"P"ndently been f<.d ing K.nt . nd Jon .... . nd I
.. ked Fr.mci",o ,.'helher be wou k! still m,in,. in hi. < .. Iier .nt i-t<kologic.d "'nc<
in light of Ion." >argoment th.t one C.n not rocogn i,. ",m<lh ing to be • I i. ing being
unl • .., one recognize. il., pUfpo>i," . nd that one c.nnot r«ogni,. >om<lhing ••
po'!""ive unl ... one i,.n .mOOdi«l'g<nt wno experience. pu'pO!ive""" in on<.
own ca><, Franci><o replioo th.t he ", •• "" ill qoi.e . u,piciou," .boot thi> .ppe. l to
t .... oIol:}", . nd he""o to thi' way ofli nking ph,nomenolO!.1' .nd biology, . nd th .. he
prefmoo to ",hift th e >,nnt" from tdoolo&}' to originol intention. lity, under>tood
as the ... n .. -"",king GOp>cily prope' to . otopoietic unit .. He .. w thi • .!t ift as • , <-
"oem.."t of the "·S,mti.goKhool' mOl', '0 introduc. tho eqo.tion lif. = cognition."
h'. d •• fly ".illy: he .. id, to m. k, collolaf cognition jo>t like animal cognition. bot
thei, "common roo'" i, thi> baoic ><nse-m.king np"ity pro""r 10 .ulopoi<1ic lifo.
Apl"'.1 ing t 0 ",ns<-mIki ng, ho 'O!;g<>tN. "'" mo ... "con>truct i .. " 'h, n 'I'P" .ding to
the ",I o>i", princirl< of po rpo><." Seme-m"'i ng pro.ioo. ,Irong nk to i n .. ntion.l-
ily, bOI "wh<'lh..- this lurn, imo leIeol"l,,),." iN' >Jid. " j, .nmh..- m.ttrr." This line of
thought. 00"-<\'«. >truck m. '" onsa,i.foctory bee.o,. "ofigin.1 intrntionalit y" .nd
· "", ,.-m,king" ore them",I."" .rgoably tdoolog;c.l notion., Th. i..,uo i. p,eci><ly
ho ... 10 .nolyze t hi> tdeoIO!.1' . .\.o al'hough tiN' pfOpo>ition "living i,    
m.y be . n imponant < ... t ion of the equa'ion hf. = cogni'ion. i, i, in.officient
to o.tabl;,h tho .nti-'ekok>gical ".nco with "",',eet to Kont· •• nd lona" notion of
Id"oIol:}". Six months la1<f. in t:!e<. mb<r "' 99. in ' '''ponso to .notiN', o-mail of min.
p,..,.i ng h im on th i. f ,.ncise" i nJ ianN that .. h"", h.J go "" by, he h.d com.
to h>l". "broaJor vie"," .nd to _,ha, "in. fonny ""Y ) '00 do .-.em .. " a fuil fk.dg«!
tol.oIol:}" ... but thi"oIoology i, . .. in'rimic to lifo in oction" and "<loc. not 'eqoire
an ex". "m,<end.ntol >omc,," in tho Kantian >< n ... In oth ... word., tel""k'!,1', in
t be >ens< of .. If-organiud natoral porpo>i .. ".... can be S<'rn" ,n ompiric.1 f .. ture
of tho """ni>m, b,s.J on its aotonomy .nd ", ,, .. -making, m,h .. th.n only a fonn
of judgmen' • ., Kmt had hek!. It'. pfeei",l), t his con«ption that W"""r . nd Varela
p.-.s<nt«l in "lifo afte r Kont" .nd that they coiled in'rimic
53. s... V"ela. "lnhmale lJi.tancr •. "
54. I borrow ,hi, phra .. ffOm Koller, A f"«Ii'ffor lire Ort"";'"'"
55. .nd Varcb. "l ife .ft .. K.nt ." 110.
16. !l.1,,",u- l'onty, PhtnommokJgie de 10 r<,upl;on, 90; I'heoomcnolOfJ-' of P<ruprioll.
SJ. V .. oI •. "Neorophmom,nology: 334,
Beyond Autopoiesis
InfleCTions of Emrrgmce ,md Politi(j in FmllCisco Varela
Franci",o V.rd.', work i, a monumental   in twentieth-century biophilosophicalthought, Afler hi s e.rly collaboration in neo-
cybtmetic. wilh Hum1x-rto Maturana (aulopoie,i,j, Varela made fundamental
contribution, to immunology (network theory), artificial life (cellular autom-
ata), cogniti,-e ", (enact ion) , philosophy of mind (neurophenomenol-
ogy), brain studies (the brainweb), and East -We.t dialogue (the Mind and Life
conferenc .. ). In the course of hi' career, Varela influenced many imponant
collaborators and interlocutor .. fornted a generation of excellent student, .• nd
touched the he, of many with the mind, the sharpness of his wit,
and the strength of his spirit. In thi ' essay, I will trace some ofth. key turning
points in his thought, with 'pecial focu, on the of em.rgence. which
was always central to hi' work, and on qUe5tions of politics, which operate at the
margins ofh;, thought. I wm divide Varela's work int o three
",is, enaction, and radical embodiment----each of which is marked by a guiding
concept, a specific methodology; a research focus; an inflection in the notion
of emergence, and a characteristic political question that specifies a scal. of
what I will call "political physiology" - that is. thc formation .. politic"
at the civic, 5Omatic, and "evental" ",.1 ... These term, refer to the formati on
of political 'tates. politically constituted indi,oid ual •. and intersection in
political r ncounters r .. pecti,·ely.
The fim period. marked by the concept of autopoiesis. runs from the early
1970. to th. early 1980 •• nd use, formal rfeu .... ive mathematics to deal with
synchronic emergence-that i .. a focused behavior on thepa" of an organic
5)'Stem that is achieved via the constraint of the behavior of components of the
synchronic emergence can be seen as the question of the relation of pan
and whole. The "search focu, i,on identifying"n .... nee oilife. The political
question here i. the limit of ming autopoiesi, as a modd for enacting social
being. Varela see, autopoiesi, as only an imtane< o( a general mode o(being,
organizational closure; he restricts   to cellular production- that i.,
10 li,·ing .ystem. bound by a physical warn, against ming il as
a model of social being. Here we see the question o( the macro-Kale of polili,aJ
ph)"iologr, the (ormation of a "body politic" in the da .. ical ""se. what we wm
c-all a "ci,·ic body politic." Varela refuse, to countenance the use o( autopoie,i,
as a model (or social 'ystem,. I wiU argue. not so mu,h for purely "cognitiYe"
reasons., but be<:au," when autopoiesi, i, enacle<!, when it i, the model (or a
way o( social being. then social 'ystem, become obsessed with physical bound·
aries., leading 10 a fratricidal zero· ,um competition. For him, system, abow
Ihe cellula r level-that is. neurological and immunologic-al 'ystem. and MXial
'yslems---< to be Ihoughl as informational 'Y'lems with organizational do-
,ure. (Luhmann, however, will use the term "autopoietic" with regard 10 tho,",
'yslem, as well. ) The end result is that autopoiet ic enaclmenl, in Varela. sense,
i, solely concerne<! with 'l·n,hronic emergence (home<lstatic pan-whole rda-
tions) and is thfleby unable to foster the condition for diachronic emergence in
social and political d)11amia; (the emergence of now] patterns from the undoing
of former pallerns). 1 will argue that Valfl. implicitly hold. that the hi>lorical
changes and multiple causation of political system. must be thought in term,
o( a field whose d}namics are modded wilh nonlinear differential eijuations.,
which i, beyond the scope of autopoietic thought.
The ,econd period, whose concept is that of enact ion .• pans the late 1980,
and early 1990S and u .. , differential to model d)nami, system. in
order to deal with diachronic emergene<, the production of novel funct ional
structures. The research focus i. embodied cognit;"n. In this period we must
two time ,cales of diachronic emergence: (aJ the fast scale of the
coming-into-being of a systematic focm of actual behavior from a repertoire
of potential or yirtual behaviors. and (b) the , low scale of the acquisilion of the
behavioral modules that form the ,·inual repertoire available to a system at any
one time. The interplay of Ihe .. scal .. reijuires thai we think a ",·inual self. "
The political question here is lei,ure: politics as Ihe system controlling acce>s to
training for the acquisilion of ,kill, according to the differential access to leisure
or free time. Here we s« the meso-scale of political physiology, the formation
of a somatic body politic as the resolution ofthe differential relations that struc-
lure a dynamic social-political · economic field, a proce" that is very crudely
analogous to crystalli1.ation in a "metastable" super",lurate<! solution.
The third period, whose concept is that of radical embodiment, run. from
the mid· '99'lS to Varelas premature death in 2001 and u .. s Ihe methodology
of neurophenomenologr to diS(u>s tramversal emergence. Ihe production of
di>lribUied and imerwown syslem.along brain-body-en'·ironmem lines. The
..,,,,arch focus is con"iousne .. (both basic con "" or Mstntience" and
higher-lev.! reflecti,'e or .df-cons<iou,n.,,) as it arises in the interaction of
aff"t and cognition. With the rurn 10 affoct in theorizing concrete collScious-
nes. as enacted in distributed and inte ..... o,·en brain-body-environment systrms
we approach the pol itical question. of the other and concrete social percepti on
and hence a micro-s<ale of political physiology. the format ion of "eve mal"
bodies politic or, JX"rhaps less barbarically named, politicalencountors. A.. we
will ste, such encounte .. enfold aU lewis of political physiology, as a concrete
encounter occurs in a short -term .ocial context between embodied mbj«ts
fomled by long-term social and developmental proc ....... " lore pr<"Cisely----..ince
"COnle:<t" is 100 ' talic-----;) political rncounter, li ke aU the emergem functional
structures of   physiology, is the rr50IUlion of the differemial relations
of a dynamic field. in this co. .. , one operating at multiple levels: civic, somati c.
and evental. (Here we see Ihelimit, of the crystallizalion analogy: crystal. form
in homogeneous solutions, while politicalencoume", coalesce in heterogeneous
Autopoie.i. and Synchronic Emergen ...
Varela is perhaps be" known for his early collaboration with Humberto Mat-
urana in developing the concept of autopo;"si •. Thi. work, published in Span-
ish in 197} and made known to the Anglophone community by a 1974 art ide
and then bya 1980 monograph, isa dassic of ,",ond-order cybernetics. In our
terms, it is marked by a notion of"'rndlronic emergence: which i. conducted
in static part/whole term •. The concept of aUi opoiesis was dewloped to pro-
vide a horiwn of unity for thinking li"i ng emil ie., rather than the haphazard
empiricism of the "list of properties" model usually adopted (reproduction.
metabolism, gro,,1h . . . ). In other word., Matur:llIa .nd Varela were trying to
isolate an essence ofl ife, an .. ",ncr that would provide 3 viewpoint on life that
is Mhi>lory independent."'
To produee th. concept of the "stnee of life, Varela and hi. (olle.gues
distinguish organization (essence) and >lructure (historical accident). Organi-
zation i.the ",t of aU possible rel.tionship. oft h. autopoietic processes of an
organism; it Ihus form, the autopoietic of that organism.' Structure
is that ",1"lion from the organiLltionalsttthat i. actuaUy at work at anyone
moment.' Changes in the environment with which th. system interacts are
known a. "perturbation," of the 'ystem. The ,ystem interdCts only with those
... ·ems with which it has an "interest" in intrracting---that is. those .... ents that
are relevant to its continued maintenance of autopoieti c organization (for e1-
ample, nutrients) . These e .... nts of interaction fo,m a process of "structural
coupling" that lrad, to structural changes in the sptem. These chang .. , a.
,eactions to the perturbation .• ithfT reestabli,h the ha .. line state of the .)'Stem
(they rttstablish the homeostasis of the ,ystem) or result in the dest ruction of
the ')'Stem qua living.' Homrostatic restol;]tion thu, r .. ults in conservation
of autopoietic organization. From this ..... ntialist , 'iewpoint. the origin of life
must be a leap into another r<"gister, a mCMI",,;. tis allo g""o,.' From the auto-
poietic peTSpectj,'e. questions of diachronic emergencT haw to be thought in
terms of "natural drill," whose relation to autopoieti c .. sential organization
i, problematic. as we will...,. r n any e".nt. dearly autopoietic organization is
synchronic emergence in which the whole ari,." from a "nflwnrk of interac-
tions nf components."'
The difficulty here is that the assumption of nrganiz.lIion as a fixed transeen-
dental nr essential identity horiwn p..,,.ents us from thinking life", the vinual
condition, for creati"e nO"elty or diachronic .mergence. Life for autopoiesi,
is restricted to maintenance of hnmeostasis; c reatiw .... olutionary change is
rel<"gated to structul;]l change under a hnrizon of conse,,..d org,mization. If
"inual organization i, conserved for each organi sm, nn matter the changes in its
actual structure------one of the prime tenfl, ofMat urana and Varela's autopoirtic
theory- then on an evnlutionary time scale, aU life has the same nrganization,
which means all life belongs to the ... me cia .. and h", only different structure.
As Katherine Hayles put s it. "Either nrganization i, con .. rved and e\'nlutinnary
change i. effaced, nr organization changes and autopoi .. i, i •• ffaced. '" Autopoi-
etic theory gladly admits aU this. "Reproduction and ""olutinn do not enter into
the charactfTization of theli,'ing ""olution is the "production
of a historical nflwork in which the uniti .. successively produced embody an
in"ariant organization in a changing   Although autopoietic theory,
de"elnped in the '970' at the height of the molecular revolut ion in biology,
perfonned an admirable semer in r.."serling the need to think at thel""el of
the organism. it is dear that autopoirsi. is locked into a framework that posits
an identity horizon (organizational <on""';lIion) for (structural) change. To
summarize: fnr autopoietic theory, li"ing systems con .. ,,', organization.
which means their functinning a1wap restom; hnmeostasis; evolution is merely
structural change a!}linst thi' identity horizon.
Lrt us focu, on another key f.ature of autopoietic systems: the autonomy
that they possess in vinue of their s)llchronic e mergenc •. Their internal com-
plexity is such that "coupling" with their envirnnm.nt nr endogenous fluctua -
tions of their stairS are only "triggers" of internal I)' directed act ion. Thi, m.ans
that only tho", external environmental diffe .. nces capable of being ",nsed and
made .. n .. of by an autonomous system can be said to exi't for that system, can
be said to make up the world of that system. The positing of a causal .. lation
between external and internal event, is possible only from the persJ'fftiw of
an "ob"'rwr," a system that it",]f must be "'pable of sensing and making sen ..
of such e"ents in jr.environment,
Quite soon aft .. writing Aulopojrsj, with Maturana in '973. Varela came to
restrict the validity of the ide. of autopoiesis to the cellular 1,,'e1. rej«ting the
l15t of autopoiesis .. a concept for thinking social systems, In this period of his
work, Varela di,tinguishes betw..,n autopoiesis, limited to physical production
within the 'patial bord .. pro.'ided by a cellular membrane, and organizational
dosure, whkh can be applied to system, with an "informational" component,
Varela thus comes to insist on the "complementarity" of two forms of expla-
nation: autonomy versus control or, what amounts to the same distinction,
autopoietic "ersus informational -,ymbolic explanation<, In "On &ingAutono-
mous: The Lessons of Natural History for System, Theor( ( 1977), Varda insi"s
that the autonomy and control perspecti,'" a .. (omplementary, At this point,
Varela is working with. =ur>ion model of closure. where the "dosoreth .. is·
,tat .. that "every autonomous sy51em is organizationaUy dosed," and organi -
zational dosure entails the "indefinite recursion of component interaction.'"
Here Varela di"inguish .. cell. as "physically independent units' from "sysum,
whe .. autonomy is expr .. sed in an 'informational' way", [the[ n .. ,'om; and
the immune of animals, which are, as it were, cognitive system, in the
macros<:opic and microscopic domains of the organism."" It is this distinction
be!w..,n ph)"ica! production enclosed In a physka! 'pace and the "infornlation"
of distributed 'y'tem, that will lead him to restrict autopoi .. is to the cellular
level, "Information" of cour", must be in sea .. quotes, as the cognition Varel.
is talking about entails structural coupling and the triggering of autonomous
response, rather than   objective information,
Here Varela posits limits of "differentiable dynamic representation (mod-
eling of the changes in 'ystem,) due to the limited ability at th. time to han-
dl. the diff .. entialequations necessary to model nonline.r dynamic .ystems
and so opt. for hi. ",If-referring, indefinite reco "ion model, which needs "an
infinite-valued logic."" Operator trees are consuucted and "circularity is cap-
tured through the solutio", or eigenbehaviors of equation. in this operator
domain, " This allows a " .. presentation of autonomy which is not so abstract
3S indicational forms, and ret not so demanding of quantitative detail as in
differentiable d)'llamic description.,"" The paper clOst. with a clear .tatement
of Varela'. constructivism and ami -realism: "The contents of our reality are
lrulya rellection of the recursi ... biological and cogniti'-e compulalions ....
Th.rei.moreaconstruction than a map."" We howwhal Varela would
caJl lhe Iwtopoietic enactment of thi' autonomou, constructi"ism. wh.reby a
syslem come, to focus on what it i, already up to..., as being in il1 "inter-
est" in maintaining it' .. , will haye disastrous eff"'ts in a time
of (i"il war, when , u(h an "epistemology" is instantiated in a polit ical ')"Stem
producing mutually blind- and hence fratricidal---<ompeting sy,tems. "
In the meantime, we should 'tick wilh the question of the modding of ' )"S-
Iems. In PrjNciples of   AulOno",y. Varda explains that he is allracted
10 dynamical 'ystem, model, but finds them limited to the molecular leve! and
suggests algebrai(/formal recursion model. as the mo, t general kind to u,",
in modeling larger s)"tems, 'The dassicalnotion of stability in differentiable
dynamics is Ihe only well -understood and aceeple<! way of representing au-
lonomous of systems .... (We can find] excellent examples of Ihe
fertility of this approach for the ca .. of molecular .. If-organization. " However,
this approach has a restricted validity: • An underlying assumptiou is. however,
thai there i, a coUe<lion of interdependent variables. and it is the ''''iprocal
interaction of these component ""riables that brings aboul the emergence of an
autonomous unit .... [Thus] the differentiable dynamic description become,
a spe<:ific C3 .. of organizational dosure. " More preci .. ly. Ihe dynamic systems
approach is of limite<! yalidity for organism. (and politiC'alsy"ems, as we wm
Sttj, whe .. we find a number of interlocking and embedded infonnational or
s),nbolic sptems: • At the ",me time one finds the limitations imposed by [the
differentiable framework]: More often than not, autonomous ' ystem. cannot
be with differentiable dynamics. si nce the rele""nt pnx ...... are
not amenable 10 that treatment. This is tJlIical for informational processes of
many different kinds, where an algebraic-algor ithmic descriplion has proven
more ad<"<]uate. Accordingly. the fertility of the differentiable representation
of autonomy and organizational closure is mo.tly restricted to the molecular
level of self-organilJtion. '"
The difference belween the dynamical and the formal model, depend, on
the difference betw.en an abstract temporal approach and a concrete spalial
approach. Varela refers to the dynamic approa( h ofEigen and Goodwin as one
Ihat focnses on a "network of reactions and their temporal im1lrianc .. , but di,-
regard. on purpo .. the way in which these reaction. do or do nol constitute a
unit in space." In this emphas;' on ph)"i(al boutldaries and material production
we see what leads Varela once again to insi>! on the need forcomplememarity
betw",n control and autonomy perspective. in which dissipative sl"ietm are
Irealed a, input-oulput !luxes. Although he claims there i. some evidence that
100 IOHN
drnamic able to capture membrane formation, as in 71labotinsky re-
action., "it is still a maUer ofim-estigation how wdl the differentiable-dynamic.
approach Gin in a useful way, the spatial ,,,,rithe d)'namic viewof
a system." Beyond the mole<,ular level we reach our cogniti,'e limits, set by the
state of knowledge at the time: "But it is in goi ng beyond the Illolecubr l,,'e!.
where we cannot rely on a strong physico-chemical background of knowledge.
that the insufficiencyof the differentiable framework appears, and thus the neM
to haye a more explicit ,'iew of the autonomy/control complementarity, and an
extemion of differentiable des.cription. to 0l"'rationa!ialgebraic on .. .""
In other words. at the time of PrincipiI'S. Va",la thought that cel lular auto-
poiesis coul d be thought dynamically and that while neurological and immu-
nological proce .... were "borderline Gist." higher le"e! proces..,., organismic
and social, could not be. " The key question is the abil ity to rt'present metastable
(changeable. creati,'e) systems. That is impos,ible in '979 with the algebraic
approach, and so we are left with a S<"ries of que"ions for further .. search:
Clearly, both approaches cowr somewhat non-oyerlapping aspec" of 'y'-
temic de..,ription5. Thus. it is n",e>Sary to haYf. way of dealing with plastic-
ity and adaptation. Natural'y"ems are under a co",tant barrage of pertur-
bations. and they will undergo changes in their .tructure and eigenbehaYior
as a com<'quence of them. There is no obl'ious \\lay of representing this
fundamental time-dependent featu .. of .ystem-em'ironment interaction.
in the preS<"nt algebraic framework. In contrast, the question of plasticity i.
a most natural one in differentiable framewo rks beea"", of the topological
properties underlying this form of represmtation: hence the notion. of ho-
meorrh.,i, and structural , tability in all thei r varietie,. To what extent ,an
the experience gained in the differentiable approach be generalized! How
can notio", .uch a • ..,If-organization and mllltilewl coordination be made
more explicit in thi s conteulls category theory a more .d<"quatelanguage
to .. k these questions! These and many more are open questions. "
The political question in this first period i. the extension of autopoiesis as
a model for enacting wcial being. the question of the body politic in its classic
senS<", what we ,all the macro-s.:ale of political physiology. Varela will rej",t
all attempts at .uch an extension. The tension ""ith Matu .. na on this point i.
evident in the 1980 English publication of AI<lOpoie,is, where the authors note
that they are unable to agree "on an an,,"er to the question posed by the biologi -
cal nature ofhulllan societies from th. vantage point" of autopoiesi,. " Varela'.
departure from Matu .. na is apparent in   where auto-
poi"i, i, s.aid to suggest a "universal feature" ,hared by many other type. of sp-
tems------lo wit, "organizational which extends beyond physical system.
to "informational" systems. " In " Describing the Logic of the Living," Varela i,
crystal dear: "Autopoiesis i •• panicular case of a larger dass of organization,
that can be caned ors""jzalilmally dosed, that defined through indefinite
r",u"ion of relations. "" After insisting on some mncrete sense of
"production" to define autopoiesi •. Varela dri"e. hom. hi' point: "Frankly,
I do not..,., how the definition of autopoi .. is ,an be ,lirl!Criy transposed to a
variety of other .ituation" social 'ystems for erample.""
In a late intel',iew. -Autopo,ese ot f:mergence," Varela gi"e. hi. reason. for
resisting an extension of autopoie,i, to the social:
It',. question on which I h .. 'e reflfCted for along time and h .. itated ,'ery
much, But I hove finally come to the condusion that all . xtension ofbio-
logical model, to the soci.llevel is to be avoided, I am absolutely ogain"
all extension, of autopoiesi •. and also again,t the move to think society ac-
cording to model. of emergence, e\"en though, in a cenain sense. you're not
"Tong in thinki ng thing' like that, but it i, an extremely delicate pa"age.
I refuse to apply autopoirsis to th. social plan • . That might ,urprise you,
but I do so for political reason •. ha> shown that biologi,al holism i.
"ery int.r .. ting and has produced great thing', but it has always had it. dark
side, a black side, each time it's allowed itself to be applied to a social model.
There'. alw.ys .Iippag .. toward f"",ism, toward authoritarian impo>ition"
engenic>. and so on.1>
What i. the key to th. -oxtremely deli(ate pa'''g'" n",.""ry to think social
.mergence while .voiding the "dark ,ide" of the sl ide into f"",ism! Fi"t "'e
should note the complete rej"'tion of autopoietic social notion., while the
notion of social emergence is Ie" strongly mndenmed. I would argue that the
difference Ii ... in Varela'. conception of autopoiesis a> ,ynchronically emergent,
which lock! out the sort of diachroni, emergence we will study in th. next
section. If on. could think the format ion of civic bodies politi, dynamic
system. modeling (something that for Varela at the time of Prindplrs was mn-
sidered impossible, .. we   seen), if ono could see them a, resolution. of
the differenti.1 relations inherent in a drn.mic field (again. something crudely
analogous to crystalliZJt ion in .upersaturated solution, or lightning a> the reso-
lutiou of electric potential difference, in douds Dr weather 'Y'tem, as resolu-
tion of temperature difference, in air and water), then we would at lea" have
the possibility of an "extremely deli(ate passage" in thinking political change.
But without that possibility of novel production, modeled by drnamic .ystems" .utopoie\ic social ,y"em •. once for"",d .nd matur., construct. world
102 10HH PROTfYI
only in own image and, when locked in conflict with another such system,
cannot ascend to an ·ob",r" .. " stalUs that weu ld see them bolh as parts of a
larger social system, Instead, the two conflicti ng systems are locke<! in fratricidal
combat, producing a torn civic body politic and in IUrn, civil Wdr,
In us turn here to "Reflections on the Chilean Civil War" for some his-
torical detail about Varela', worri", about pol it ical misu", of "biological
holism," or a misapplication of autopoiesis in enacting the macro-scale of po-
litical physiology, the formation of a >lXiety or body politic. In this discussion,
"epistemology" is nol a maU .. of neutral understanding but of enactment,
of the bringing into bei ng of a way of social living, The stakes are the highest
possible forVare]a in this deeply personal and emotional piece: "Epistemology
does matter, As far as J'm concerne<!, that (i\'il w;ar was cau",d by a "Tong epis-
temology, It cost my friends their Ii\'", their torture, and the same for 80,000
or so people unknown to me."" Varela's analysis shows that Chile had become
polarize<! into two "'parate world, without comlllunicatioll--thal is, one could
daim, two · autopoieti," system, with no ",n", -making o\'erlap, no mean, of
mutual recognition. but only a concern with ph}"ical boundary maintenance:
polarity ",eated a continual exaggerat;"n of the ",n", of boundary and
  Thi' i, ours; get out of here, ' ." I read this as Vareld indicating
the dangers of extending autopoieti( notions to the socia]. Th. dange, lies
not in using autopoiesis a, a means of understanding the >lXial, but in u,ing
autopoiesi, as a model in enacting a way of social being, An autopoietic social
being is on. focused on boundary maintenance, and this focus <:an create a
fratricidal fIOla,ity,
The key to understanding V .rela '. prohibition on extending autopoie5i, to
soci.l'ystem., that is, his mow "kyond autopoiesis"---but not neocy-
Ix-rnetie, a, concern with organizational dosure of informational 'ystems-i.
to appreciate hi. wuning against enacting the con",rn with physical boundary
protection, which carries along with it the risk of falling into "polarization."
Varela recounts hi. moment of insight when he o"er(ame that polariZdtion:
"Polarity wasn't anymore thi' or that ,;Je, but something that we had collec-
tively constructed'; political worlds, prf\'ious!y autonomou" had to Ix- con,id-
ered merely "fragment' that constituted this whole." The problem, of course, is
establi'hing the "observer" position that can u'" the notion of the interaction
of organizationally dosed informational'ystem, to appreciate thi' larger whole
encompassing the autonomous and mutually blind ')'stem" Varela find, this
position in Buddhist prJcti", with il5 neee"ity of 'tressing the "connection
betw.,.," the world view, political act;"n and personal transformation." To ,,'oid
the fratricidal polarization of competing autonomou, 'p"m" rdati\'i" i, fal -
libility is tne key to the construction of a political world: "We must incorpor.le
in tn. fMC/mem, in tne projecting oul of our world views, ali ne same lime
Ine sense in wnicn tnat projection;' only one p'''pecti''e, tnat il is a .. lat ive
frame. tllat it must contain. way to undo itsele'" Such flexibility, as we will
see next. is .,'ailable to a system prooucing a out of a multiplicity
of coping re..,urc ... out of. repertoire ofknaviors, but is foreclosed to Ine
pnysical cellular systems to wnicn Varela consigns autopoi.,is. For tnat rea-
..,n, the autopoietic mooel of celluiar s1"tem, is disastrously misapplied wnen
used to ",act Ine macro-scale of political pnysiolop", as in tne brutally "iotent
"epistemology" (qua way of social king) enaete<! by the conflicting 'ides in
Ihe Chilean ci"il war. To summari" V arda's posilion: ."acting autopoi.,i,
'" a way of social (as distingu;'he<! from using the concept of ol);aniza-
tionally dosed informational s1"tem, to u",lrrs,and a social silual ion) turns a
social field into a polarize<! confrontation of systems seeking phy.ical boundary
maintenance; focu .. d on synchronic emergence or pan -whole relation<. which
it se." in zero-sum terms ("thi' is ours; get out of here"), .uch autopoietic enact -
ment cannot fO>l<r the condition. for the diachronic emergence of historical
The Virtual Self and Dia(hroni( Emergence
With this im'ocation of the key lerm "enactment," we can move to the second
period of Varela's work. the lale ,<)So, and ea,ly 1990'. in which Ine recu,,;,'e
model, of 'ystems Varela useJ in Prilldpifs under the acknowledged influence
of Spencer-Brown's Laws of Forn, drop away as dynamical s)'stem. modeling
makes progress ... pe<:ially in connectionist work in cognitive science. Here we
see that Varela', work d,,'elop' a notion of · diac hronic emergence" (emergence
'" tne production of nm'el'tructures)," In this period. Varela broke into hi'
own witn • series of fundamental works on artificial life. and
the status of the organism. Thi' period culminat .. with his Sl"{ond mo,t well -
known work. The EmbcdirdMind (with Evan Tnompson and FJeanor Rosch),
the manifesto of the school in cognitive science; thi' appr(l,]ch ha,
Mn modified and developed in the work of. in particular, Thompson, Andy
Clark, and Alva NDi' ,"
In thi ' Sl"{ond period of hi' work, Va .. la deals with th,..., "cognitive" '<)\is-
lers: immunological, neurological. and organi. mic (which includes the previ -
ou, two). W. concentrate on the intersection of the neurological and the
organismic but should not forget Varel.·, groundbreaking work throrizing
the immune system as a network; tnis work rej<'<ts the military metaphor of
104 10HH PROHYt
protf<tion of imeriority and resoh"es the paradoxes of ",If "ersus non ",If rf<·
ognition that beset the d.ssic concept."
The inflrction of emergence in the period of enactment or the vinualself i,
diachronic emergence. which operate, att,,"O temporal scale, in both neurologi ·
aland organ"l11ic registers. On the fost scal. in the neurologial register. we
find resonant cdl .... mblies, which arise from chaotic firing patlern,; on the
fast scale in the organismic rrgister. we..., th. arising of behavioral modul .. or
"micr{}-identiti .. " from a competition among competing modules. We can """
that both the", modes of diachronic emergence on the fast scale are resolution.
of a   metastable differential field. While Varela concentrates on the fast
scal., we will examine the .Iow 5Cale, th. acquisition of behavioral modul .. in
those registers.. for hore we intersea the political question ofl. isure and acCfSS to
training for acquisition of , kill,. The differential field here is the field of forma ·
tion of "somatic bodi .. politic. ' the meso-scale of ' political physiology."
Working from connedioni .. model. but rejecting th. ir repre:sentationali't
assumptions, Varela looks to re>onant cdl .... mbli .. ( IlCA) a. the neutologi",1
correlate for "'micro-id. ntiti ... " Thelatler concept com .. from phenomeno·
logical refledion on the conuetelife of the eYeryday. Following Heidegger and
Morleau-Ponty in a Cartesian heritage privilrging .. If-comciou.,
reflective, and Yerbal reasoning a, the . ... nee of cognition, Varela will claim
that mo<l   lif. (of competent adults, to be .ure) "accompli.he<! in
.killed. nonrefle<:tive comportments. Disrupti\"<" social encounters, however.
lead to "breakdowns" in such coping and can lead to reflf<tive d",ision
m.aking or to th .. adoption of another . kille<! comportment.'" Th. neurological
correlates of breakdowns are a fall into a background of chaotic ftring, out of
which emerg .. a new RCA. Thi' resolution of the differenti.1 field of widely
distribute<! chaotic firing form. the ba." for creativity in the arising within,m of a triumphantly emergent comportment. There i, no · choice"
here, as the proce .. of ari,ing of an RCA i. too fast for conscious reflf<tion,
which occurs in temporal chunks. so that RCA formation occurs the
back" of reflective consciou,ne ... An RCA i'the neurological correlate of ",hat
i. described in other registers a. a skill or agent or module, and the ,reati,'e
emergenCf occurs on the basi' of the historical formation of a repertoire of
beh"'ioral modules.
We see here t,,"O important concep'" the vinual .. If and th. enactment of
world. A, this repertoire i, a distribute<! and mod ular ,y"em, at both th. behav·
ioral and the neurologicalleYeI., Varela will talk of a "vinual .. lf" or "m .. hwork
of .. Ifl ..... Iv .... as th. subtitle of" arela', "Organism" puts it. The correlate
of the vinualself. with its multiplicity of micro-identities. i, the enaete<! world.
The law. of physics. or 1M regularities of the environment (the epi>temological
niceti .. that mighl distinguish these phrases need not concern us here), fom1
only loose constraints for the world. each or!}!n;sm bring. fonh or enact, in
a proce .. of "surplus signification," Here we S<'t' echoes of the .. nse-making
at the heart ofth. autopoieti( notion Of"slructural coupling, " but with more
ability to fI .. h out the neurological, al work.
With these twoconcept.,a, well as Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty. in mind,
Varela and colleague. write in Ti,e E",bodiell Mind.
Th. challenge posffi by cogniti"e science 10 the Continental discu .. ion.,
then, is to link the study of human experience as cult urall)' embodied wilh
the study of human cognition in neufOscien(e, lingui,tics, and cognitive psy-
chology. In contrast, the chall enge posffi to cogniti"e science is 10 question
one of the most entrenched a"ulllptio", of our scientific heritage-that the
world i. independent ofthe knower. If we are forced to admit that cognition
cannot be properly understood without common sen .. , and that common
sense i. none other than our bodil y and social history, then the ine.,.iuble
condusion is that knower and known, mind and world, . tand in relation to
e,,,h other through mutual specification or dependent coorigination."
At thi' point I would like 10 shifi from nposition to critical engagement by
extending this seri .. of challenge, <0 that enact ion i. in turn challenged to   ­
amine the unconscious social grouping hiding in the "our" of "our bodily and
social hi' tory." The challenge is 10 examine the historical and political sy.tem
that di'tributes lei,ure and the access to training for learning of behavioral
modules. A funher chaUenge i. to diSdbuse ourst!"es of the naive notion Ihat
all those modules are beneficial to the body that incorporates Ihem, ralher than
beneficial to the power struClure of the society. In other wo,d., many people
incorporate behavioral module< that hurt Ihem. alt hough they hell' reproduce
inequitable social dp1amics."
W. see the contours of Ihis problemati( in Elhical Know-How, publi shed in
the Embodied Mj",l period. The "collstitution" of the "coglliti ... agent" i. "a
matter of commonsensical emergence of an appropriate stance from the entire
history of the agent'> life .... The key to autonomy is Ihal a li"ing system finds
its way into the nen moment by acting appropriately out of it. own ,,,,,,urces.
And il i. the breakdowns, the hinges that .n;culale microworlds, that are the
source of the autonomous and creative .ide ofliving cognition."" Once again.
we have to distinguish two umporal scal., of diachronic emerge",,,: "The
moment of n"!lottation and emergence when one of the many potential mi -
croworld, takes the lead . . . Ihe wry moment ofbeing-thrre when something
106 JOHN p ~ o n ~  
concrete and sp«ific snows up ... within tne gap during a breakdown there is
a rich d)"namic invoh·ing concurrent subid.ntities and agents. ·" This is the fast
dynamic. If we are to engage Varda', work critically, we also need to thematiu
how the behavioral repertoire that provides the .Kope of those many potential
microworld, has emerged o'·er the slow Kale of deYeiopment, maturation,
and learning. In oth .. words, we must think the slow dynamic of structural
coupling leading to the ontogenesi, of tne embodied subj"t: this process mu,t
Ix- anal)'led politically as the differential acce .. to training. To bring out all it.
potential, Varela', insistence on autonomous organisms needs to be supple·
mented with an analysis, using social/political categories, of the distribution of
acc." to training that allow. differential instaU:uion of modules/agents/skill,
in a populat;"n of organism,.
The important thing is not to confuse autonomy and competence. A cor-
pore.1 subject with a limited repertoire of capacities, or with a repertoire of
disempowering habits. is still autonomous in the Vardean sense, as producing
Ix-hayiol1l on the basis of enyironmental trigger, or .ndogenous nu,tuation. No
matter how wid. or narrow your repertoire of ,kills.. no matter how powerful or
weak )'Ou are in enacting them, you are no more autonomous than is any other
organism in anyone action. How ... ·er, there i. a difference in competence, how
well your .ctions enhance your survinl and tlourishing and tho ... of others, as
well as a difference in the range of enyironntfntal di fferences you can engage and
survi,·e, thus preserving )'Our autonomy for future .ncounte"." But you have
to be trained to acquire many of these skills. As Varela puts it in Ethical Know-
How: "The world we know is not pre· giyen: it is, rather, enacted through our
historyof structural coupling, and the temporal hinges that articulate enaction
are rooted in the number of,", micTOworlds that are activated in each
situation."'" Again, in order to d ... ·dop Varela's insight more fuUy and ihu. to
reach the full concrete realit)"of our social life. we haye to .nal)'le politically that
history of structural coupling in terms of ace .... to training to greater or I.sser
number and greater or I .. ,er quality of skms opening micTOworlds.
The key to thematizing this of pol itical physiology is to think of
downward causation in social emergence, the macro-scale of the bod)" politic
we referred to aoo,· •. Picking up here on a contemporaneous essay written
with Jean· Pierre Dupuy, Varela describes in EThical Know·How the way up-
ward causality allows for the emergence of social regularities: "Interactions
with othe.... . Out of these articulations come the emergent properties of
social life for which the seln ... <[' is the basic component. Thus whenever we
find regularities such as laws or social roles and conceive them as enernally
giwn, ..... e ha,·e succumbed to the fallacy of attributing substantial identity to
what is really an emergent prol'eny of a complex, distributed proce .. medi-
ated by social interaction,. "" But here Varela i, working with a formal model
of synchronic emergence and has neglt"Cted the downward causality of the ..
regulariti ... whether in.titutionalized in disciplinary interwntion or distrib-
uted as modulating "control. " as they work in the .low temporal scale of the
diachronic formation of somatic bodi .. politic in the context of a panicular
constellation of a civic body politic. As generation. go by. "" .... a patterned
differential social field, channeling perception, action, .nd .fft"Ct along lines
of social "roles," Varela has demonstrated only that laWs, rules, institutions,
fie. are emergently produced by upward causal ity in • 'rnchronic emergence;
he ha, neglected to .how the downward cau",lity efft"Cted by the ..
(which we could modd by tracking the formation of attractors in a social ' p"'"
repre .. nting soci.l "habits") .nd the way this socially enacted world structur-
ally couples with, and guides, the ontogeny of the individual person. It', the
pre-personal social field that n.eds to 1>. thought. Persons are resolutions of
the differential social field, concretions of the social field that form the afft"Cti\"
topology of the person: the patter"" threshold" and triggers of basic emOlions
or affroiv. modules of fear, rage, joy. and 50 on as they interact with the cogni -
tiw topology of the person, the cognitive modub or basic coping behaviors
that make up the f\"'i'day !'fpenoire of the person.
In df\'eloping the practice of "neurophenomenologl' : a concept h. coined in
1996, Varela hegins hi' I.te period. It i. in this period that the point of contact
with politics appears in the question of concrete and afft"Ctiw social perc'1'tion,
the formation of th. "evental" body politic or th. political encounter, what we
will call-tran,,'"'' emergenc •. " Thi.latter term indicates the formation of
a functional .truclUre involving organic ,ystems and em-ironmental oojt"Cts,
including tt"Chnologic.1 items, as w ..... in "ext"nded cognition" imulving the
u .. of physical marks, ranging from simple scratches in day tablets to calcula-
tors, computers, and the like.'"
In a late and "ery imponant art ide, collaoo.ating for the last time with
EV'an Thompson, Varela writes: -Nenral, somatic and environmental dements
are likely to interact to produce (\"ia emergence a, upward causation) global
organism-en\"ironm.nt proc ...... which in tum afft"Ct (via downward causa-
tion) their collStitu"nt elements."'" There is a .Iight terminological nuance here,
as Varela has al" .. di'tingui,hed "en,·ironm.nt · (as objecti"ist or reali.t) from
"world" (as enactive). W. are to read thi' distinction a. maintaining that the
108 IOHN  
"environment" (= "laws of natu"'" or ph)·,ical regularities) pro>idesconstrainl>
on world-making: it const .. ins but doe, not oplimaUy 'p"'ify the enaction of
worlds. Thus. to in"oke the classic example from n" Emboiii,d Mi"'i.l ighl
obeys laws of physico. but that onl)' provides con>lraims on the construction
of many different enacted color-worlds, which t Tack lines of natu .. l drift . The
prrcision introduced in this article is Ihat we do not see structural coupling
betw ... n organi,m and world but betw ... n organism and e",·ironment. with
Ihela"er coupling being the process ofth. enaCTment of world. With this in
mind. w. note that Thompson and Varela specify thre. dimensions of .. .. dical
t. Organismic regulation in which affect appears as a "dimension of organ-
ismic regulation •... the feeling of being alive ... inescapable affe<1iYe
background of every conscious ".te"
1. Sensorimotor coupling, where "t .. nsiem neuTdl a""mblies mediale the
coordination of sensory and motor surfaces. and .>ensorimOlor coupling
with the en"ironment conST .. ins and mooul ates this neural dynamics. It
is this cyelelhalenabl., the organism to be a ,ituated agent." Insofar as
"situated agent" means "that which enacl> • world." we see that coupling
with the environment cons, .. ins and enabl .. world-making.
3. lntersubjecti"r intrraction. whrreby "the signali ng of   and
sensorimOTor coupling playa huge role in social cognilion . . .. Higher
primates .. cel at interpreting olhe .. 35 psychological .ubject. on the
ba,i, of bodily presence (facialexpressio"" poSlur •. '·ocalizalion<.
etc) .... Intersubj.diYity involvrs distinCT fon", of sensorimotor cou-
pling. as .. en in the so-can.d 'mirror neurons' disco"ered in area F5 of the
premotor conn in monk.y • . ... There is eyiden .. for a mirror-neuron
.ystem for gesture recognition in humans. and it ha, be.n propo .. d that
this .ystem might be pall of the neu .. 1 basis for the de"elopment of
languag .....
We .hould note here that the thought of intersubje<:tiYily in Varela's late
period STerns from the notion of "the oth .. " a. d"'eloped in the theory of the
recognition of the alt er ego, based on Husser]' s Fifth Canesian MediTation
(alt hongh .upplem.nted by the recognilion of recent "search into mirror neu-
ron< J. For exampl., Varela "Tile' in a aMicl. from 1999:
It is beST to focus on the 1",,111)' correlate, of affect, which appear.
as directly felt, a. pan of our /i,,,,,i bcdr . . .. This trail ... plap a deci,i,·.
role in the manner in which t apprehend the other, not"' 3 thing but a.
another subj",ti"ity similar to mine. as alter ego. !t is through hi"her body
that I am linked to the other. first as an organism similar to mine. but also
peKeived as an embodied presence. site and mean< of an experiential field.
Thi' double dimension of the body (organiclliwd; Korprr/leib) is part and
pared of empathy, the ropl means of aceess to social conscious life. beyond
the simple interaction, as fundamental intersubj",tivity. "
To"", how the problematic of the "other" i, an abstract "philosopher's prob-
lem," let us note that in The Emboi)ied Ai;",) Varela and his collaborators, han
Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, cite R"",h's r=ar<h into categori"tion, where.
in a 197i1 mide, she posed a "basic level " of perception/action/linguistic naming
in a hierarchy of abmaction. This ba,ic I,'yel is. in her example. "chair" rather
than "furniture" or "Queen Anne." In the same anide Rosch proposed a "pro-
totyp<'" theory for internal category structure-ralher than an ideal exemplar,
we have concrete protot),p,,, by which we judge category membership by how
dose or far an obj",t is to our protot}']>." not whether or not it sati,fies, list of
n",essary and sufficient conditions that we carry around with us. If we adopt
Rosch' , modd, in concrete social per<eption are ne"er faced with the Hus-
serlian problem. "Is this just a thing or is it an alter   which we re..,l ... by
distinguishing betw""n things and subifft .. Rather we are always confronted
with other people at "basic lel'el " social categories appropriate to our (ult ure:
for us today, the famous age. size. gender. race, and class system. So we newr
"'" another "subj",t"; instead. we see o\'er here, • middle-aged, small, neat, fit,
profe"ionai black woman (Condol""" Rice, let's "'y), or an elderly, patrician,
tall white man (George H. IV. Bush, let', ",y).
So we have to say that Varela', discussion in · Step>" i. abstract, which is
r<,yealed by hi. use of "his/her. " r n our societ)', we newr (,£rcei>'l' a "subifft "
we can call "his/her"; we can po,it such a cream .. , but that's a refined political
act of oYercoming our immediate categoril..ltion process, by which we per-
ceiw gendered subjects. to construct an abmaction we can call a nongendered
"intersubj"'tiw community" or "humanity· or some such. While this might
be a wonh)' ethical ideal for which we can striYe, it', not what we peKeive "at
first glance'-
It's not that we are completely without guidance here regarding social per-
ceplion. In "AI the Source of Time," Varela and Depraz mention what would
need to be tleshed out: among the fiye components of affret the first is ",
precipitating evem, or trigger that can be perceptual (a ,ocial eYent, threat,
or aff"'ti ... exprossion of another in social con text) or imaginary (a thought,
memory, fantasy ... ) or   r n other words, the social trigger has to be
110 10HN PROnVI
recognizable, ba<ed on the ontogeny of the I"'rceiving .ubje<:t. As we claim
above, this ontogeny has to be thought a. a resolution of a pre-personal dynamic
differential social field, Aft .. leaming our mid-le"eI social cat<'gories." we never
immediately encounter an "other: only concrete (><'Ople we loc.te in complex
social cat egorization ""hente •. The encount .. with the "other" i. the result of
an abmaction, a working up of the initial encounter, abstracting away from
the "mid-I .... of concrete social per ception."
let us conclude by returning to "Reneetio" . on t he Chilean Ci"il War," Varela pro"ides an example of mid-level categories in concrete S<Kial
perception and aff"'t : "1 rememberwryweU that the soldier, whom l..,w ma-
chinegunning the other fellow who was running down t he meet, was probably
a ]9-ye.r-old boy from ",mewhere in t he South. A t ypical face of the (><'Ople of
the South . . .. I could see in his face what 1 had " .... 'er seen, a 51range combina-
tion offear and power. ""
Varela's reminiscence rings true to concrete meial perception. He didn't see
a neutral ",ubi"'t: an «other", he >JW a Chilean boy of nineteen,.
concrete person who is gender.d, .g.d, and raciallyor at least flhnically marked.
In that marking, and in the perception of a new aff",ti ... 51ate on the soldi ..
boy's face, that "strange combination of fear and power," we engage .11 scales
of polit".1 ph)"Siology: the macro-scale of a civic body politic torn apart in civil
wa., the me",-scale of the development of the repenoire of behavioral mooul",
a, the boy i, mar k.d bythi, affective combination, and the m;"'ro-scale of politi -
cal encounter, mediated by affect and cognition on Varela's p.n "' this assem-
blage or momentary tran"'er>Jlemergence ari .. ., street, gun, soldier, shooting,
running, dying, obsen'ing. Ou. challenge is to negotiate the "enremely delicate
passage" of social emergence that would let us think t hrough the int erchanges
among alll"'el, of political ph)"Siology in this haunting scene------<:ivic, ",matic,
and .... ·ental_t once.
Not ....
I. Vorl'!., M>turan., m J Urib<, • AUlopoi",i,," 187.
2. M .. urm. md V.rcia, Au]opeier;, "",I Cogn itio", 8S; >car< quOl .. in original.
). Ibid ...... , n, 1)r-}8. 5... . 1so H.yk>, How II', /kc""" Po,thU","n,I}8. and Rud .. uf
<1 01 .. "From AUlopoi .. i. 10 Nourophenom<nolo>;r: JI.
4. M .. urm. md V.rcia. Au/opeier;, "",I Cogn itio", 81.
j. "The e>,ablishmenl of on ,ulopoi<1i<: .y>tom cannol be. &",du.1 prO(,"", either .
'l"' tl'm i, .n .lltopo""ic .ptem or il i. not" (M.turan •• nd V.,ela, Awopei,,;, and
6. V.,oI •. M>lu"M •• nd Urib.. "Aut<>p<>ie.i.: Ig7. In "No' One. Not Tw<>: V.,.I •
• 1.0 no' ... 'he .ynchronic .,n""'gonce of whol ... from ,h. inl<raaion of part. (63).
7. Hayl..,. How 11', &<"m< Pod),,,,,,,,," Ij',
S. M.,ur.n •• nd V.rel •• A."'o/,,,ie,i, alld Cog"ili"n. 96. 104 .
9. V .. oI •• "On Iking AUlonomou.: 79.
'0. Ibid.
n. Ibid .• g,.
I:>' Ibid .• g,.
IJ. Ibid.
' 4. I.m not ,t. iming ,ha, all.y"em. of organ;l.iI,Km clo.ure--for in><. tho", 'hat
Of. in V .ret.·. 'crm, illfarmalio"OHto dangerou, we;.1 model!. Thu. I .m not
arguing ,h., V,,01", w'TTling . ppli .. s<nOfolly to oocw .)'>t<m •• which Luhmann
" .. ,,,'" "outo""",,ic" by ...Jefi nin S ,Iwm in !<fm, of ><If-r.ferml W rom m unic .. i ..
,,·m". s... l.uhm.nn in 'hi> voIu",",.
15- V .,01 •• Priflripl" of BiologlCl.J A..,lo"omy. 'OJ.
16. Ibid .• '04--5. ':mph.,i. in original.
'7. Ibid .• '' OJ. ... inrompu,.., "mul.,"'n will " ", .Ilow for In. d)'Tl."mic modol-
ing of coope"t ion .nd <ompetition in til. form.tion of to>onan' cell •• "'mbl""",
w< c.n...., by '99' in I'arda. Thomp><>n, .nd Itooch, l'/U: f"mbodi ... 1 .\Ii",L
IS. V .,01 •• PrilKipk> of /JicWgi<al Autonomy, 'OT<>. Emph •• i. in o,iginol. Itobert Ito .. n
t.>1 ... up <atq;ory throry (d. Life 11><1/): Vm-l. drop' ,n. form. li,,,ion ., more
.d"'!u.,e dyn.miml modol. 'ppe".
19. Matur.n •• nJ V",.I., A..,lo/,<,i<-,j, nm! Covill"", "g.
"0. V."I •• "On Ileing Autonomous," 7').
21. \,.,01 •• "u.,scribing tho I.ogi< of 'ho Living: J7' emphasi. in or iginal.
",. Ibid .• 38; emph •• i, in origin..! .
"J. V."I •• "Autopoi.,,, ., <me'!:enco", my t rans!.nion.
'-4. \,.,01 •• "ReA",tion. on tne Cllilean Ci,;1 War: 19.
"5- Ibid .• \6.
,6. Ibid .• '11-19: emplu'" adJro.
"7. In a di:Uogu. with Comdiu. C.>1oriadis, V.",1a 'p«ifi.., that ,ueh emc-rgen« i.
neith.". . leatory nor Glkul.ble (Ca!lori.Ji>. I'o,r ->ffiplum 'u. l"in,jgnifi""'" 11)).
,g. Thomp",,", Mi"d in Lif" Clark, IJ<illf 10m, Nt><. "clio" in Pm .. ,p,ion.
'9. See. for e>.ampl •• V.,et.. anJ Cou,inho. "ImmurlOknowledge."
JO. Vard •• "Orgm",m" .nd "MOOng It Concr., •. "
Jl. V.,d •. Thompson, .nd R"",h, Th, Eml""li ... 1 Mi"d.ljO.
p. Young'. rhrow;/lg Ii .. Girl i. a cla",ic of tn. privilegeJ onJ empoWff«!
m.",uline ro!pOfO.1 .ubi<'<t p"''''ppoo«i in   •• n:U)",. Y oungshow.
now m.ny fominizeJ <0!pO"'..! .ubi<'<" oxpeeienc. p.rt. of the world ••• n<iety-
producing ob.tade •• ,ho "",",e" part. t lut. compel.nt m.",ulini",,:! ,ubj<"C1 will
oncounter ••• mu,;ng occa.iom for tho demon", .. ion of compelet\ce.
JJ. \,.,01 •• "M:t1ing It Concreto: 11.
J4. Ibid .• 49.
}j. S1ud.nt> of phik:..ophy miSlli wi>h.t ,hi, poin' '0 till op themnn«t;"n '0 Spino",:
· Wh.o, c.n • body do! How c.n i, be .ffected!'
}6. Vorru, Elhi..,/ Know-Ho .... I?
l? Dupuy .nd"-. U"Jmlanding 6L
}S. Reg""li 0 & tll< '''''''&' ' 0 t fUlKtion, in the in l<rplty of .n in",1 ph y.wlo\'"f .nd the >truc-
'ur." they build. or umer. 111< Ex,,,,Jcd Organi.m. R<,&",fding hom,n-t",hnol"l:)"
inten.oce>. """ CI. rk. {I,'.lorai /lorn .nd H.n",n.IJoJ;." in Cook.
39. Thompson .nd V.,,'la. "R.dic.! E.mbodimen': ""4.
4'. V.reLt, "S,<p' to. Scienceoflnt<r-Il<ing, • SI. ori!;.in.! omph.o.i>; ""'.!'" V.rel •• nd
Depra<, "At ,h. Source ofTi"",." where we re.d of '. primorui.! do,lity, • rough
'opology of "/fDlhcr." Original ,""ph .. i •.
42. V.,,,. and ))epr ... "At ,h. Soorce ofTimo.· Origin.! .mpha.i>.
4J. Rodg." .nd", .. in in Soolh Pncific: "You"> .. !,'Ot to be l.t ugh, .. . carefully
,.ught! ·
44. Thi, i. ",he,. wo n.."j more <mpiri,,1 work on hllm • .,. .nd mirror neuron •. With
mon""),> ,,"'r Imow th .. it ;" .imply inlr.-.p<6fic. I w,nt '0 •• k if tha,·. tI •• c."" for
hum.n, or if our hi!lorical-cul1ur.! bodily formation (who' I'm colling "pol iticol
phy.iology·J do",;n', .. , .... "" our mirror neuron empathi,,;ngat sociallyron>lruc100
· mid-I ..... I· ClI lt"gori ... Do we "dehurrumiu· .""mi .. in warf. re (we can ki U them ,l<y' ,. inhum.n vermin. in><ct" ,.l> •• tc. ), or i. -,impl.·<ation
e""ogh! h ilth .. ,h. inferior roc .. ore hum.nly limin.l. at th" oorder of .nim.l>!
I' or more on mtrror n"oron" .... !lrigh.m m ,hi. yolum •.
45. V.,<I" " R<fit'C,ion. on the Chile.n Ciyil W.,: IS.
System-Environment Hybrids
  01 "".[{hln! fOf m«h.nfsms In the .nvironm enl th.t lurn org.nfsms fnto
miKh in .. , we h .... 10 Ihe m<ch.nisms with in Ihe org.nisms th.1 en,bl. th. m to tu," .nvironm. nt into a trfvl.1 m.chin. ,
-H"HZ VO" m .. ST ..
n "".ms to me ... th" a"topoi • .;s d.,e",e, to It< r .. hou!ht fn ",I .. ion to   .. th .. "e
.... Iut "' •• nd mll«II ... "nd th .. ,ustaln dJ..r"" kinds 01 ",1.1100. ol. lw!ty, rath., Ih.n
,,"fng Impf.c. bly do,,, In upon 'h.m""I .... Thu, in .. lwdons. lik. t«hnful m.chln .. ,
wIIKh, in ' ppearan« , dep<M on .lIopoi .. fs. b« omel pso f.cto . ulopoi"K ""en 'h..,. "e
s.on in Ih. f<. me_k of m.chinl< or • • ri n!s th.t Ihey con,titule .Ioo!with hum.n beings.
We c.n Ihu. envi.ion . utopoi.,I, und., the he.dfng 01 .n ontogene, l • • nd pllyIogen .. l.
sp« lfic to • m« h,no'ph.", ,h.n ,up.,impo,""s Itsell on Ihe blosph.,e,
- ,tux GUATTAR'
In "e. d of Ihe su<fa<.,; so l\'IIic. 1 of first modem itl.,- , he" dom.lns" 01 5C ienco. 01 oconomy,
01 5OCi.t.,., tho ", ph., .. • 01 politi<> ••• Iu<>. norm,. 'he "fi. lds· 01 symbolic u plt.l'o. .. pa-
rat< .nd Inwconnoct<d "system,·.o I.mlll., to roo"'". of l "hm.nn. ""e", hamageneity
.nd mnl",1 could be c.lm"" coo,ld.,.d- w< .f< now f.«d Ih e ,.,h., hombl. melting
pots so vivid"" d .. « ibod by hi, l",i.n, . nd 5OCIologl". 01 >cr.n« ,
Picking up on Latour ', remark concerning tho "rather horrible mrlting ro""
we now face in our highl), Irchnologized, "posthumanist " world, I off .. Ihi'
medilJtion as an appeal for a flnible and adaplive understanding of what the
legac), of neocybern<tin might be for tho", of us ",eki ng to make ",n", of que,·
lions of agenC)', identity. complexily. and e\'olurion in Ihe fa,. of Ih. ma"i"e
te<chn;caJ distribution that currently characterizes our "cognition in the
The straightforwardly hi,torici't assumption that orients my thinking he ..
is Ihat the complexity of the world has undergone a double Iransformation
"4 MAU ! . N.
<ometime in the fairl y recent pa>1: first. worldly (em'ironmemal ) complexity
has be<:ome <0 intense and 50 messy (hence la!our's im'ocation of "horrible
melting pots") that any effort to reduce it through selection by .. tr ms (or
their avatars ) cannot ignore the agency that i, wiolded by the environmem;
and second, the operation of thi' en\·ironment.1 agency i, now predominantly
and ",'er increJ>ingiy te<:hnical, meaning that 'y,tem function is irren>cably
permeated by technicity from the en\'ironment ,
As I ,ee it, this techni,al intensification of complexity and the irrevocable
agency it accords the (to 50me exUnt unreducrd) en,'ironment calls on the
contemporary theori't to abandon the desire for purity that has informed neo-
cybernetia from Heinz von Foerster', cybernetics of cybernetics to Luhmannian
s) .. tem, theory and beyond. Contemporary nfOCy\>ernetic thinking mu,t adapt
the significant re50urces of neOC}i>ernetin to addre .. a changed world (or envi-
ronment) that quite simply , ,.,-ist5the reduction of complexity <0 central to both
"on Foerster', and Luhmann's projects. This inj unction, I want to emphasize.
does not in any way entail abandoning what we i n this volume collectiwly take
to be the central motif of nfOCybernetics---namely. the operational do,ur. of
self-referential sysum,; indeed, as I see it, the increased complexification of
the en"ironment makes operational dosure. no malter how proYisional and
heterogeneous it may now in actuality be. all the more urgent ,
What the injunction to adapt ,I"..., howe"er, caU on us to do, is to mm'f--in
roncm ",irh rloe ""';Or     in nr"'Y/"'f"fu7ic throl)'-be)'Ornl the polarization of
open and dosed 'ystemsand focus instead on the n'"£otiation of multiple. diverse
bounda.ies made ne<:essary by the hype.compie:xification of the en\·ironment.
By italicizing the abo", line,. I mean to emphasize that m)' call for flexibility is
perfectly in accord with the ' pirit, if not alwap the leiter, of the work of
major neoc},be"icians, induding "on Foerster. nd abo ... all Luhmann.
Indeed. Luhmann stres ... hi' 0"" break witro older forms of 'y'tems theory
on precisely the topic of open and closed systems. "Newer developmenl5 in
systems theory," he pronounces in   "no longer interpret the di,-
tinction between open and do>e<l 'y'tems as an opposition of types but rather
regard it as a relationship of intensification. Using bound ... i • ., sy'tems can
open and dose at the same time. separating internal interdependencies from
s) .. temknvi ron ment interdependencies and relating both to each other. Bounda -
ries are thus an " 'olutionarr achievement par ncellence; the development of
all higher-I"'el 'ystem" abo,'e allth. development of .ystem, with internally
closed self-reference, presuppose them."' By emphasizing the contingency of
any sptem' , selecti"ity, Luhmann shows how the same em'ironmental factors
can support troe constitution of different boundaries and thus gi,'e ri'" to
different '}"Stem •. From h .. e. I would ,uggeslthal il need on!y be a ,mall Slep to
the re<ognition Ihal. alongside systems proptr (those ""If· ref .. ential processes
that can maintain tOlal closure to em·ironmental agency and can reproduce their
comtituliw dements entirely through their own optration). there exist "system·
environment hybrids" (. EHS) that realize their autonomy al a higher l,,·el of
inclu,i'·ene,s-which is to say through constiruriw rrlnrilm witit "Iteritr-.nd
that. for Ihi. reason. cannot be qualified as auropoietic. One key qu.stion Ihal
arise. from such a claim- a question Ihat dearly divide; Ihe authors of Ihi'
volume (along with the main playe" in Ihe articulation of neocybernetics}-is
to what extent the environment. and 'Jlffificall y the operation of SEHS, inter·
fere; wilh the smoolh funclioning of sy'lem auropoiesi,. As we5hall see, much
depends on how one understands the balance of power betwc .. n system, and
SEH' in our <ontemporary te<chnospher •.
For my pan, I shailiry in what follows to<OIDbine a defense of the motif of
operalional closure. modified in certain r"I'"'1S from its canonical articulation
by Maturana and Varda, wilh an effon to a(<ou nt for the undeniable agency of
the en,·ironment as 10 some extent a nonreducible force of alterity. My claim
is that even if this force of a1t .. il)" may not directly enter into Ihe op"'.tion of
(some) systems (to Ihe extent that such operation can be isolated from their
worldly interac"lions. which itself remains an oven question), it c.rtainly does
inform their <ogniti"e operations in the world. In thi' sense, when (th. majority
of) systems ope"te in any <onerete context, they al,..IIY'and MtY""'t,ilydo so in
conjunction wilh a te(hni(al en,·ironment whose agency ,annol be rrou(e<ito
m .. e penurbations-whose agency not only a(1S in ways oth .. than to maintain
system "prodU(lion bur also more gene"Uy remains beyond th. scopt and
mastery of the systemic perspective.
Lei me say something more 'Jlffi fic conc.rning why closure r.mains ,uch a
(Tu,ial motif, panicularly in light of Ihe hypercomplexification of the <ont.m·
rorary t&chnosphere. In <on(en with Luhmann, I believe Ihal sel&Ction is key
to instituring differ.nce into what would otherwise r.main undifferentiate<i
chaos: "One must di.>tinguish the incomprehensible <omplexily in a 'Y'lem (or
it' environment ) Ihal would result if one <onne<:ted ewrything wilh ... ·.rything
else, from determinatdy structured complexily. which can only be ,ei&cte<i con·
tingently. And one must distinguish en,·ironmental <omplexity ... from sy'tem
complexity ... ; the .ptem complexity is alwaY' lesser and must compensat e by
exploiling its <on!ingency. Ihat i •. by ii' pallern of sel&Ctions . ... The d;jfr""er
between two <omplexities is Ihe real principle compelling (and therefore giving
form 10) ,,1":lion.·) Although r concur wilh the main claim here regarding
contingently sel&Cle<i complexity (which I take (0 be an ahernale S1atement of
th.   principl. of neocyi>emetic.), I remain I .. " con"inced that contingent
selretion nred take the foml of a discrete distinction between (agent of
.. Iretion) and en"ironment (undifferentiated ground of selectivity) and al",
that thi' yield, a "completely different undemanding of complexity" antithetical
to the treatment it rfCei,'e, in contemporary theari., of emerg. nce. Not only
doe, thi' argument 'trih m. as circular and in an odd .. ".., instrumental (,ince
the diffe .. nc .. produ<:ed by contingem .. lea ion b<"Com ... the motivation for
that very .. Ieaion), but it also, and of more immediate .. , has the
effect of rendering th. "ery ,tructure of th. nrocybernetic edillc<" remarkably
defen,i ... in natu .. : hobbl.d by its deficit of complexity ,'i,-a-"is the en"iron-
m.nt , the 'pt.m mmt uncea,ingly ,tmUI. to defend it' fragile {and. a, r ,hall
argu., in som ... n ... (al'd autonomy. A. any reader of luhmann' , 'y'tematic
'tatem.nt' cannot but admit , the motif of 'ystem prese"'ation (a utopoi ... is)
takes prfCed. nce owr any intere't in accounting for what', actually going on
in the environm.ntal "wild." As r Ott it. then. tto. bottom lin. i, that this fun -
dam. ntally def. n,iv. po,itioning make, an unfortunal<" ,taning point from
",hich to grappl. with the undeniable (technical) complexification. ",hich i.
to say with the unprfCedented material agency, of the world.
In thi' re'p«t, my hean i, with theori,ts lik. Katherin. Hayles, Felix Guat-
tari. and And)" Clark. who. in ,"ariou, ways, ha" .. sought to mo,'e beyond the
motif of autopoietic cio,ure. For all of these theori,ts, autopoietic closure re-
maim insufficiently dynamic to grapple with th. ba,ic operati on of chang ..
that is e"'rywhere at work in th. ",orld. Thus. Hayl ... has recent ly caUed for a
rethinking of th. permeability of boundari .. of all kinds; Guattari ha, urged
a ,hift from autopoir,i, to machinic heterogenesis; and Clark has promoted
a mult iplication and complexification of boundari .. in the placr of de-
fensive ossification. Yet while I concur ,ubstant ially with many of the claim'
offered by the ... throri'ts, r remain concerned that the .ffort to loo ... n the grip
of aut opoi.tic closur. risks losing the motif of do,ur. tout eo,m. To my mind,
50me conception of do,u .. , ho",ever provisional and non-autopoietic it may
tum out to be. i, absolutrly nffessary to introduce differentiation into tho
undifferentiated flo"" of th. cont.ntporary tfChno'phere. It i, in thi' resp«t
that r con,ider myself a propon .. nt of n.ocyi>ernetics and an ad"ocate of th.
irreducibil ity of ... Ifftivity (not to mention a fellow traveler with my colleagues
in this volum. j : through its minimal in,i"ence on the motif of dosure (which
must, as r ,hall argue ,hortly. be sharpl)" distinguished from "mopojeticdosure).
neocybemetic thinking can furnish tho nfCe,sar), conceptual ar ... nal to 'p«ify
th .. heterogenrou, correlations betw ... n human, and tffhni" in our hyp ... -
complex contemporary world. As I see it. neocybernetic thinking allow, a more
fine graine<! and mo .. rigorous anal)"i' than Ha)'b , Guattari, or Clark of the
concrete wa)" in which boundaries are not only multiple and complex, but also
permrable or impermeable depending 0'" .he ,mi. being ""plMell. In ,um, then,
without ne<:essarily m ncurring wit h   element of neocybernetic discour ..
as it has b«n developed by its numerous theoretician. , I , hall make the ca",
that the neocybemetic principle of dosure i. partimlarly crucial for us today
as we .. ek to negotiate the new " .H' in and through which we he, For me, in
. hon, do.ure becomes all the more imperative (if all the more provisional and
scale-' pecific) as the technical complexity of the environment inere.", •.
What i. at issue in mntemporary environmental complexification i. the
te<:hnieal distribut ion of cognition that has revolutionize<! not 'imply the vari -
ous cogniti"e sciences but also first and foremo't the actual experiential do-
mains they study. In today', complex mmputational world, countless instances
of human ageney----.,wn those as mundane as making online credit card and
mongage payments, monitoring information about the weather or the ,tock
market, ""en writing len ... and .. nding messages------occur against the back-
drop of complex computational infrastructures. which geographer Nigel Thrift
h .. chri'tened with the fel icitous name of the "te<:hnological uncomciom, -'
Such instanc .. witness the operation of hybrid agencie" which, when viewed
from the perspective of the human agent or agents involved, compri .. . ystem-
en"i ron ment hybrid. , I . ubm i t that th i. human-anchored, <"Ven h uman-centere<!
(though not ne<:eMarily humanist) perspecti"e remains the predominant one
for the va.t majority of hybrid. technically dist ributed forms of agency: most
in.tances of technical di>lribution of cognit ion, that i. , in\'ol ... the u .. of te<:h-
ni" to expand the agency of hum"" ",i",lbOOks, "'hether indi,'idual or colle<: -
ti ... in scale.
Thi s state of affairs------thel"oliferation of SEll . where the system in question
i, rhe h"'''Qn ",;",Ibody-presents. unique problem for contemporarp:ultural
theori,ts: how can on. recognize the certain consi. tency, perhaps e\'en the
autonomy, of the (individual or coll" ti"e) human mindbody and at the sam.
time account for the certain non-autonomy that accrues from it. un"'oidable
rdianc. on the agency of information ally complex en"ironment' to " hie",
its cogniti". tasks!
The answer [ would propose invo"'" two "'iisions of the neocybernetic
motif of autonomy.
(1.1 Our conception of autonomy must be multiplied and differe ntiated so
that different form, of dosure apply to different lewl. of operation.
Thi s ne<: .. saril y i ,,,"ol,,es a decou piing of dosur. from au t oroiesi, or a utopoieti c
do,ur., along the lin .. proposed by Varela in Principles of Biological AurOlIO"'Y.
(It also entails a b"ak with Luhmann' . effort to p"""rve the pattern of aUlopoie-
.is aero" all .ystems., meaning-producing as well as non-meaning-producing. )'
Thu., while tne clo.ure of pans of tne numan agent may remain autopoietic.
this laud. operation----or better. it. co-ope ration- in any concrete cogniti,-e
, ituation wiU i",,,h'e not ju.t tnis . utopoietic closure, but also various otner.
differently scaled. and more provisional non-autopoietic closures, penaining
to the higher order and p'ychi, functions of the human being,"' well "' the
transindividual co-operation with the -technological uncon><:ious." As we will
see. the nexibility of our biological makeup, of the organi.mic closure that
gives u. our embodiment, is crucial to our capacity to combine multiple and
heterogeneous closures in order to act in the ""rid.
(2) Our picture of both 'y'tem operation and 'EH operation must be made
far more complex to do justic. to this mult iplication and differentiation of
dosure. In order to analyze adequately the cogniti,.. operation of any system
or 'EH today. we need to take account of     of the heterogeneous closures
that combine to effectuate it. agency in any concrete .ituation. In the case of
'ystems, thi' may inyoh'e laking account of the autopoietic closure of human
mindbodi .. (which Luhmann .i mply ."imilates to the organism and a"um ..
a. pan of the en"ironment of p'ychic .ystems) along'ide the non-autopoietic
dosure of a meaning system like language or print textuality. In the case of 'EH'.
which. I want to reiterate, predominate in tod.r" complex world, an adequate
account would in\'Oh'e ),"1 more leyd. of clo,ure: not ' imply the dosures ju>t
mentioned. but also the hybrid. provisional closure effectuated by ("yl the
use of the computer to perform what Ha)'l .. has long referred to as cogniti"ely
..,phisticated task... In this laS! instance. we can see how br closure has come
from both autopoiesi. and autonomy, at lea't as it has been traditionallyueated:
more or Ie .. in line with Luhmann's minimal definition. closure here simply
indicate. that the operation of an gEH does not involve all aspect. and pos-
,ibilities of a .ystem or of each system i",,,h'ed and that it doe, not involve all
aspect. of the en,·ironment. all "",sibil iti .. for em-iron mental agency. Because
.EHS are produced by selection. (alt hough. it i, important to note ... Iection.
that take place "ero" the sy,tem-environment divide), they can and must be
considered to be dosed. with closure here meaning simpl)' that Ihe cogniti>"
operation they perform i. due to the various selecti,.. agencies (systemic and
enYironmental) they bring- pro'-i,ionally and situationally- together, What i.
at issuf in such ca .... i. a set of functional closure" rather than some o,'erarching
instance of autopoie!ic dosure.
To rethink closure across the system-environment diyide. a. I propo .. here.
requires a reformulation of the specificityof system. and their distinction from
whallie. beyond Iheir boundarie •. Thus, for me. the differenco between a .ys-
lem and J system·em·ironment hybrid doe. nol inYoh'e autopoietic closure so
much as the of m .. tery po.sessed by the system: where .. systems in Ihe
narrow sense enjoy cognilive mastery owr the aspe<ls of Ih. environment to
whi ch they are coupled or interanionally open, this condilion no long" holds
in the case of SEHS. In reference 10 'Y'lem" we can &ly Ihallhe environment has
tri"i.l agency or, perhaps more accuralely. lhal the environmenl funnions (or
is attended 10) predominantly if nOi exclu,iwly as a supper, for system agency,
in the case of SEHS, by contrasl, we (annot avoid re<;ognizing Ihe nontri"i.1
nalUre of the en" ironment' s agency. lIS role no longer being simply to provide
.upport for ,y.lem reproduClion. the environment in SEH' ha, real agency,
defined as cognil iw operationality beyond the maintenaner of .yslem identi -
ties or aUlopo""i •.
Although this reformulation of the neocybernetic principle of dosure ad-
milledly wreaks havoc on Ihe neal Luhmann;an distinctions thai il adapts.
the result ing messiness is simply Ihe cognilive cost of le<;hnico-maleri.1 com-
plexification. (Recall the "wher horrible melting pots" in"oked by Latourl)
In what follows, I . hall first seek to clarify this messy picture by considering
.ome re<;ent account. of cognili", di,tribution. Then, I , haJl construct an alter-
nate neocybernelic genealogy. ",I in motion by V .rela', decoupling of closure
from autopoi .. i, and extended in cTU<ial way' by the work of politicaJ phi -
losopher and psychoanaJysl Cornelius Castoriaui. and the Fren<h philosopher
of te<;hnology and biophenomenologi,t Gilben Simondon. The ad, .. ntage of
this genealogy i. thaI it manages to loe Iheline between the hard program
of neocybernetics (exempl ified by Luhmann) and the <aJl for a dissolution of
boundari .. (exemplified by Hayles), betw",n the ne<;e"ity of closure and Ihe
re<;ognilion Ihat technico-material compiexification resists reduction. Intro-
duced not a. a specific program for contemporary cultural theorist, but rather
as an appeal for Aexibiliry in our assumplion of the neocybernetic legacy, Ihis
alternate genealogicallinrage inSTanc .. one (hopefully) succossful combination
of a (transformed) conception of dosure with a commitment 10 Ihe nontrivial
agency of Ihe environment.
Consider the reversal of the arrow of coml'lexificalion telescoped in the
passage from Heinz von Foerster giwn as an epigraph above. Ciling it in hi'
introduction to von Foerster's ObSflV;"S   Varela indicale. that in its
context wilhin yon Foerster's 1970 essay "Mo]ffuIJr Elhology: Ihe remark is
intended to describe what occurs in "a Iypical condilioning experimenl" of the
.on thaI behavi oral psychology was carrying out in the 1'160'.' Accordingly.
von Foersler', daim ser' .... 10 indicaTe juST ho'" centra! the line of questioning
120 MAaK!. N.  
pursued hore has "'Wlly' be,,, for neocybernetic thinking. Far from providing a
,ucoinct rxpression of the methodological orientation of nrocybemetics toward
<k<omplexification ofth. en"ironment, "on Foerst"-. r.mark beg, the question
whether the environment. oflivingsystem, can "'er be r.ndere<! "tri,·ial ."' As
I..,.. it, the factors motivating von Foerster'. skepticism concerning reduction
have only grown more powerful with t ime. In the face of the hyperacoelerate<!
technological chang. underwriting the "disorientation" that now (haraaeri, ..
our phenom.nological interaction with the environm.nt (as critics like Paul
Virilio and Bernard Stiegler ha.·, underscoreJ). it ..,.,m.downright ",'en to
proffer the possibility of a triyialization of the environmem. ),,10reowr, the wry
picture of the system .xening compl.te comrol ov.r its 0\", self-restru(turing
in response to enyironm.mal perturbations .., highly idealistic in the con-
text of the massiw infrastrunural rol. play.d by technologi .. in our world
today. If our ag.n(y depends incr • .,ingly on «tffhnologi(aJ unconsciou,
(Thrift). surely some dimemion of it must involve the nontr;yial operation of
environm. ntal proc .... s that are .imply beyond our control.
It is prffisely this intuition that inform. Katherine Hay! .. ' •• kepti(i,m to-
ward second-order cybernetics. If, a. Hayles suggests, the neocybernetic picture
of recursi"ity remaim lock.-d in a vicious (irde. unable to open out into a spiral
that would yield "dynamic hierarchies of emergent behaviors. " that i. pr«isely
because of its m.thodologi(al postulate of closu re: so long as =ursivity does
"no more than turn back on itselfto cr.ate amopoietic system, that continuall y
produce and reproduce their organization," it (annot, apparently for rea>ous of
principle, )'ield anything new. That is why Ha)'les understands the .ignifi(ance
of toda),'s tffhnical hyperaccderation in term. of its (hall. nge to boundaries
of all kinds, and .. peciaUy to the boundary of the ,kin: "Boundari .. of all kind,
have become permeable to the supposed other, Code perm.ateslanguage and
is permeate<! by it: elfftroni( text permeates print; computational proc .... '
permeate biologi(al organism,; intelligent machin .. permeate flesh. Rather
than attempt to police these boundaries, we .hould .triv. to understand the
m.ateriall), specific waY' in whi<h 110"1' acrOM cr.ate complex dynamics
of intermediation."'
Before ';mpl)' "(ce<!ing to this swe."ing ciaim. we would do well to pinpoint
exactly what;. at stake in the boundary violation. in".ntori.d by Ha)·I ... For
when cod. permeates language (as it does in the computational hosting of
writing in a natural language, such as the writing you are now reading) o.
when elfftronic text permeates print (a, it does in "arions hypertext hostings
of .pecific print text. or conv.ntions), what is at i"ue i5 not a whol.",I. fu -
,ion of the two form, of materiality. nor a total de-differ.nt iation ofth. fo.m
of natural language or print ten , but a cenain supplementation and a certain
pro\"(xation that may change the functionality of language or print but not
it, systematicity. What I mean by thi' i. that the 'y'tem of a naturJJ languag.
like Engli.h is in no way MPoo;jie,i by the intru.ion of dement. of
code, ju,t as the conventions of print textuality are not somehow de-.pecified
by the embedding of print within an electronic environment. Rather than a
wholesalelewling of di,tinctions between system and environment, what i. thus
needeJ i. a more nuanced account of the way tha t the boundarycr05.ings Hayles
pinpoint>---<lnd the form, of intermediation they yield-modify (almo't always
by expanding) the function of a sy.tem without necessarily transforming it.
con,titutive organi zation.
Such an account be<:omes even more urgent when we turn to the domain
of the li'·ing and ask what exactly is involved when computational proc.,,,,,
permeate biolog;"'al organi,m •. when intelligent machines permeate flesh, as
they cen ainly do. in manifold and well-nigh unrepre ... ntable ways. in our world
today. In hi. re<:ent book, Naluml 80m Cyborgs, cognitive scienti't Andy Clark
turn. hi. attention to this wry question. sketching an an,wer that, however
much it mapesonate with Hayles ·scall for a farewell to neocybernetics., not only
down plays the novelty of human· machine mergers (in concert with Stiegler
and Manufi DeLanda. dark insists on the fact that the li'·ing human being
has always been dependent on cognitive scaffolding), but also----and of more
for u< here-prese" .... the 'p«ificity of 'y'tem operation across
the apparently posthuman morge .. that are occurring ewrywhere today. Be-
yond .uggesting that we ha'·. always (or haw never) been po,thuman, Clark',
position approaches the qu .. tion of boundary violation Ie .. through 'pe<:ific
contemporary technologie, (and, his title notwithstanding, the concept of the
"cyborg") than through the biological flexibil ity that characterize. (and has
characterized I the living, embodied human being. We are. Clark inton ..
repeat.dly throughout his book, "creatures who .. mind. are 'p«ial preci""ly
be<:au .. th'"}" are tailor-made for multiple merge" and coalitions.'"
Clark emphasize. that our 'pecial "ability to enter into deep and complex
",Iationship. wit h nonbiologicaJ con,tru{"\., props, and aid," i. more than a
mere t«hnieal , upplementation and that it can be traced back to our bio-
logical fl exibility: "Thi' ability: Clark .p«i fies., not dep .. nd on
wire· and-implant merge .. , '0 much a, on our openne .. to information·
processing mergers. Such merge .. may be consummated witbout the intru·
,ion of silicon and wire into nesh and blood, as anyone who has felt him .. lf
thinking via the act of writing already knows. The familiar theme of ·man
the toolmaker' is thus taken one crucial ,tep farther. Many of our tool, are
not just ntemal props and aid,. but ... are d""p and integral pan. of the
problem-solYinssystems we now identify as human inteUigence.'
While hard-
lin. neocyboernetici.tns wi!! bridle at Clark', ntent ion ofinforntation-proc,""ing
merge .. , I", u, boe dear al>out what Clark has in mind here: in the kinds of cog-
niti"e distribut ion he seem, to boe enYi.ioning, it is the flexibility of the human
mindbody that allow, lIS to modify our own cogniti ... operation. through our
co· functioning with external, technical scaffold, .uch .. the computer-cum-
word· proc","",r. Far from boeing penetrated by information from the outside,
we haw the capacity to use technologies to expa nd the .phere of our own "i n-
cognitiye capacities.
I want to me" that Clark'. emphasis fal l, squarely on the Aexibility of ,','
hmllan minllW)' and not on the agency of the em·ironment. Hi. aim i , to de-
scriboe the mindboJy in the age of its technical expansion, rather than to explore
the direct .gency of tod.y', complex computational environments. For Clark.
then, the extent of the environment', role is to furnish an impetus impelling
us to rewire our brains---that is, to ""erci5e a capacity that originates in and
boelongs squarely to our biological makeup:
Our natural proclivity for tool- based extension. and profound and repeated
.. If- transformation ... explain. how we humans can be so v<7j' specia' whil.
at the same time being /lot w very different, biologi(""JII y-speaking. from the
other animal, with whom w. , hare l>oth the planet and mo>1 of our gen ...
What mak", u. distinctiwly human i, our capacity to fOII/ Wlructllrc
"lid rcbllild 011' ,,"'" ",mt,,' cirelli/ry, courtes)' of an empowering web of
culture. education, technology, and Milld, like 011" arr "''''plex,
""ss)'. COlltest..,'. J><"F",rabl,', alld const"",I), up for    
For Clark, our contact with informationally rich environment. i, in itself
,ufficient to 'pur the r .. tructuring of our brains: no infomlation need boe tr.",-
ferred. Yet, by way of contrast to Luhmann (with whom Clark · .. mphasi. would
otherwise ... m of a piece), the important point he .. is that this restructuring
can boe triggered by the environme", ollly     of ,he flexibility of 0'"
which i, to say onl)" becau .. of the margin of imletennination that i, built into
our operationally cktsed biological organization. The role of this flexibility can-
notboe stressed enough. For if "cultural scaffoldi ng Ican I change the dynamics
of the cognitive system in a way that open' up new cogniti ... possibilities,""
this takrs place witholll any alteration of the biological makeup of the human
!x-ing, without any informational intrusion into our constituti"e operational
closure. Cultural ",affolding modifi.,the human cogni zer without impacting
its biological dosure.
How would thi' picture change if we were instead to place our emphasis
on the agency of the en"ironment itself? Can Clark' , picture of the human as
"natural oorn cyborg" encompass the dislribution of cognition into 'ystem-
"m'ironment hybrid, whe .. the environment's agency is not trivial- thai i ..
wherr it is more than a me .. function of the autopoiesis of the bodybrain (no
mJII .. how flexible this lauer mighl in fact b,,)r The answer would seem to be:
to some extent al leas!. For in addition to positi ng an indirect, yet inmperable,
coupling of organismi, complexity and the complexity of contemporary tech-
nics, Clark' s account of cognitive distribution directly implicales technics as a
resource for the ongoing development of bolh troe biologically housed cogniti,'e
system (th. brain or bodybrain) and the larger cognitiyely di'tributed sy.tem
(comprised ofbod),brain and environmental scaffolding), Thus, .'i. n as the
complexity of the environment must be domesticated from the standpoint of
Ihe organism' , (impr .... i",l)' flexible) biological closure, it can- indeed must-
be deplo),ed as a " ... urer, a source of alterity, for the correlated evolution of
the brain and the lechnically distributed cogniti," systems in which it e\"fr-
increasingly finds itself implicaled loday.
Returning now 10 our discussion of the irreducibility of em'ironmental and
lechnical complexily, we can..., dearl)' how Clark'. work authorize, (e .... n if
it doe,n' t itself develop) an imponant alternatiw to Hayles' , call for a general
leveling of boundari .. and a turn away from neocybernetic conceptions of
=ursiyity. Spe<:ifically, dark', conc'1'tualiz.lIion of cognitive distribution as a
model for human-machine mergers allows us 10 institule and maintain a differ-
entiation between cognitive nexibility and biological do.ure that can "'''ognize
and capitalize on the increased technical complexification of the environment at
Ihe .. me time as it affirms the motif of domre, not once and for aU, but multiply
and differentially, at different level, of cognitive operalion. The pain, Clark
lakes to dislance hi' understanding of openne .. from the .. enario of ma.:hinic
intrusion into the flesh thu, begin 10 make sense as pan of a larger argument for
the displacement of the ,talic binary of dosure-openn .... in favor of dynamic
functionalist differentialions. In thi' re'pe<:t, Clark' , account i, notable for its
effort Ii> pres."", Ihr sfWificiry of the diyergent elements---"mate rial brain, ma-
terial bodie .. and complex cultural and technological en"ironment'" - whose
"looping interactions" generate "human thought and rea<on."" Rejecting any
wholesale de-differentiation ofboundarie .. dark'. position instead urges a mul-
tiplication and complexification ofboundarie5---J.nd specifically the ooundar;',
constituting the hing human being as a (mul ti -leYeled) ,ystem- such that the
biological flexibility ofthe human being can open up nt'W cognitive dimension"
but only when correlateil with the most <reatiYe., culturally and technologically
c.taly-Le<!. imeractional pmsibilitie •. At the limit then, dark's conceptualiz.a-
tion authorizes a confif;Urat;"n of system-en\-ironmem correlalion .uch that
complexity in thelaner, far from being first and foremost a problem that must
be mastered by .ystem .. Iectivity (as it is for Luhmann). can it .. lffunction as a
sourer for 'Yslem operation or. mo .. prfCisely, as a source for system change.
By positioning environmemal as a crucial source for Ihe cogniliw
operation and development of the human being understood both as embodied
brain and a, element in a larger distributed cogniti\'e system, Clark .mbraces
the introduclion. at least in principle. of some measure of hrtrropoirsi, into
system operation.
To theorize the positi ve contribution of heteropoiesis, we must. however.
mow beyond dark' •• mphasis on how biological Aexibility manages to trans-
form the complementarity of closure and openness; we must, that is, focus on
how cognitive function is actually .hared among human "",I machinic compo-
nent. in actual instances of SEHS. For this task. let us turn to the work of French
  Felix Guattan, wh05f account of«machinic heterogenesi." tap.
the promi .. of Varela'. decoupling of dosure from autopoi .. i. precisely in
order to open syslem function to the force of the heterogeneous technosph ....
Autopoi .. i., Guatt.ri suggests,
desen'l'<; to be rethought in relation to entit ies that are evoluti\'f and (01-
lecli,'e. and that sustain diw .... kinds of relation. of alterity, rather than
being implacabl)' dosed in upon themselves. Thus institutions., like tfChni,.1
machines. which, in appearance. depend on allopoi .. i •. become ipso facto
autopoieti, when they are .. en in rl .. f",m<'1vo,k of m"chinic ordering' rhal
r!try con<titlHe "long wit/, hWIII'" bring>. We can thus em'ision autopoiesis
under the heading of an ontogenesi, and phylogenesi. spfCific to a mfCha-
no.phe .. that supenmpo ... , itself on the bio.phere."
His retention of the term "autopoiesi." notwithstanding, what Guattari is at-
tempting 10 theorize is prfCisely a deployment of dosure beyond the narrow
boundaries of autopoietic dosure------o deployment of closure in the "',,'ice of
defining I", stable, less unified, bUl non<theless definitively bounded and con-
sistent machinic orderings that largelymincide ",ith what I have been ,ailing
hybrids. Guattari mak .. dear the tradeoff involved in such
a softening of the motif of closure: the demand for unity must be tempe red.
a. must the stricture on (at I.ast informational transfer acr""s what
henceforth become prov;sional, dynamically .,,·olving boundaries: "Dia-
grammatic vinualitieslead u. away from Va .. la's chara.:lerization of m.chinie
autopoiesi. as unitar}" individuation. without input or output. and prompt u.
to empha.ize a more collecti"e machini.m without delimited unity and who",
autonomy me.he. with diver", 00"" for   Part of my argument here
is that such a picture---<lf a dynamic proc .... in,-oh'ing multiple, pro" isional
closure. across the human-machinic di\'ide-------corresponds to the insight behind
(though, to be ,ure, not to the concrete worki ng out of) Varela's own decou-
piing of clo.ure from autopoiesis,
For Guattari, as for Varda (and for me, too). this decoupling has an irreJuc-
ible ethical dimension- it urg"" us to think and act in sync with the mater;;,1
complexification of the cosmos it,df. Guattari pri'·ilege. technical machine.
owr all machinic orderings that impose a universal referent (capital, energy.
information) precisely becau"", theycut across material domains: technical ma-
chines. he insists. "are founded at the crossroad. of the most complex and the
mo.t heterogeneous enunciati"e components. " When he '"'Y' that "machines
.peak to other machine. before speaking to man. " Guattari dearly enunciates
their role as mediators of . m·ironment al complexity. Machi nes are integral
to any effort to impose some provisional clomre. <orne fleeting reduction of
complexit),. on a world, a technosphere. increasinglycharacterized by rdentl ....
heterogenesis. As such. they are mediator< for human co-evolution with the
mvironment. And human cooperation with machines across 'Y'tem bounda-
ries------<:ooperation or co-functioning with the alterity and nontrivial agency
of technical complexification- i, precisely how cognition gains purehase in
the world toda),. Such cooperation or co-functioning, moreover, is abwlutdy
crucial to the fUlure of the human as a form of life ine>capably coupled to it'
environment, for if the human i, to retain its rdennce, if not necessarily it s
centrality, in the f"eofthe massi,·. and massivriy OKcelerating complexification
of the world, human bei ngs mu>! welcome the alterity of machines as a crucial
source of connection to a world ever more difficult to grasp di, ... :tly.
What Guattari .imply call, "machine, (what r have termed 'ptem-en"iron-
ment hybrid.) are operators of dynamically evoh·ing. provisional closure that
are at once nK",,",r), to decomplexify what would otherwise be an unaMimilable
chaos but that resre<'t the alterity. indeed the "autonomy," of the world's mate-
rial complexity. At the same time a, they in'titute do,ure. and indeed. precisely
to do so in their ,ingular, alterity-resre<'ting manner. machinic orderings draw
on the extent of the world', complex imererossing<: every machinic ordering,
Guattari claim" "through it' variou, component,. tears away its consistency
by crossing ontological thresholds, thresholds of nonlinear irre .... rsibilit)'. on-
togenetic and phylogenetic thresholds, thresholds of creative heterogenesis and
autopo;"i,. "" Far from imposing the univocal figure of Being on the world,
,uch a picture of human-machine correlation affirms not just the particular
closures, the concrete machines that support it, but along with them, the
alterity of material complexification itself: "The play of intensity within the
ontological constellation is . . . a choice of being not only for itself but for all
the alterity of the cosmos and for the infinity of time."
The Autonomy of System-Environment Hybrids
Guattari's conceptualization of machinic heterogenesis expresses the ethical
imperative we face today, the imperative to refuse the twin temptations posed by
cont emporary environmental complexity, on the one hand, simply to dissolve
boundaries altogether (Hayles), and, on the other, to harden boundaries into
a handful of durable autopoietic system types (Luhmann). However, Guattari
doesn' t himself grapple with the concrete difficulties involved in developing a
viable model for the machinic orderings or system-environment hybrids that,
arguably, comprise the predominant forms of organization (or dynamic, pro-
visional closure) in our world today. To begin grappling with these difficulties,
I propose that we return to the inspiration for Guattari's work and also for my
own intervention here-namely, Varela's conception of autonomy, specifically
in the mature, final form it takes once it has been decoupled from autopoiesis.
What Varela provides is a commitment to continuity (not identity) across
difference and, in the wake of this commitment, an ethical perspective capable
of affirming the irreducibility of the human as a form ofliving even as it tracks
the alterations inescapably imposed on this form ofliving by our world' s ever-
accelerating environmental complexification. To be blunt, what distinguishes a
Varela-inspired account of to day's SEHS is its commitment to the irreducibility
of the human perspective in the face of its ever more complexly configured
technical distribution.
Fleshing out such an account- an account that conjoins a commitment to
human closure with the differential reiteration of closure across system levels-
will, of course, require us to move beyond the resources of Varela's project.
In what follows, I propose a genealogy for such an expansion that detours
through the work of Castoriadis and Simondon. In work that intersects directly
with Varela' s research in biology, Castoriadis demonstrates the necessity to
move beyond not just the closure-openness binary, but more specifically the
level-specificity of the operation of autonomy: whereas autonomy of the liv-
ing requires organizational closure, autonomy of psychic and collective beings
requires openness to alterity, which is to say willingness to embrace precisely
that which motivates system change. And with his conception of individuation
as a nece.sarily incomplete process involving a concrete indi\'idual and the
"preindividual " en\'ironment , Simon don links Ihi' openne ... to alterity- thi,
rmbrace ofheleropoie,is------directly to the lechn ical complexification of the en-
vironment: on Simondon', account, nol only doe. Ihe em'ironment n.ces.s.arily
1"""''' nontrivial agency in O>"'l)'proc.ssofindi'l'iduation, but to the extenllhal
this environmental agency carrie, the "en.rgy" Ihal op.n, Ih. unexpe<Ctabl •. it
also plays Ihe major rol. in all cr.ali ... change.
Tog.lher, Varela', in,i'l.n(e on the integrity of Ih. human and on conti-
nuity across divergent level, of being, C.sloria'!is's differentiation of I"'els of
autonomy, and Simondon's pri\'ileging of Ihe agency of the em'ironment a.-
semble the tool5 n.c'"""'ry for us 10 thfflrize, in a broadly n<"OCy\>emetic mode,
the operalion of system-environment hybrid, made nff ..... ry by the contem-
porary complexiii(alion of our Iffhnosph .... R.lher Ihan possessing instilu-
tional (that is, autopoietic) cI",ure Ihal ruts acro ... the human (as Luhmann
ralher triumphally pUIS it ). today'. SEH' are crealed and dynamically evol\'e
through what I would like to call technical do,"",., which is 10 say Ihrough far
more pro"isional form. of closure Ihal are resolutely functional in nalure: that
persist only so long a. the di'lributM cognitive operalions Ihey characterize
last, and Ihat are minimal in the stnse of having no significance olher Ihan
their loose selection of rel,,·.nt agencie, withoUi regard 10 the maintenance of
more'lable. narrowly defined, and pure 'yslel11 boundaries, A. ,u(h, Ie<:hni -
cal dosure allow, Ihe environment to .xert its agency ind.pendenlly of and
beyond the demand,of 'yilem autopoiesi, (cio,ure more narrowlydefin.d as
amopoietic dosure), including the autopoi .. is of the living human agent' that
form a robu'l, nondi\'isible or integral component of so many (though, to be
sure. by no means all) SEH' in our world today.
Continuity: Va,r la
Varela ,tand. aparl from other neocybem.liciam on account of hi' insistence
on mainlaining some form of conlinuily across system 1 ..... 1,. From Varela',
persp<"<tive. the human being i, atona and inSl'/'"",blya li\'ing being comprised
of ,ublewl, of aUlOpoieti( system, (the cellular and the immunological. fol -
lowing his five-part divi,ion) ,,,,d a psychi, and social being- that is, a li"ing
being who .. activity of living happens through psychic and social ..... nt" in a
psycho-social milieu. And while Varela recognize, that these levels (an be iso-
lated from one another in order to analy:ze th.m scientifically, his work force-
fuUy underscores how any such i",lation necessarily involves an ab,traction
128 MAaK!. N.
from a consi>tency that chara(t.rizes the Ii"ing (human) as a totality and
one that. crucially. encompasses its continuous. if ,,· .. -changing. relation with
a complex environment.
A, I "" it, Varela', commitment to continuity auos. 'ystem 1"'e1, h .. its
origin in a cenain methodologi(al principl. th .. date> to the "err inception of
the lheory of .utopoie>io--namely, the primacy accorded the operational per-
.pective of th")'Slem over anyob",rvational vantage point. This primacy works
10 constrain the observation, that can be made of a ,ystem: • A proper r<"Cogni ·
lion of an autopoietic 'y>tem a> a unity requires Ihal the obser,",r perform an
operation of distinction that define> the limits of the 'y,Mm in Ihe same    
in which il ,pecifie, thm' th""'Sh it,   Ifthi' i. nOllhe case. he
nO! ob:serw the autopoietic 'ystem a. a unity"" Thi. ",emingly straightforward
'pe<Cification of proper ob"''''ational tffhnique----this injunction to delimit the
')'Stem in strict accordance wilh its own operational dosure----comprise. what
I would like to hold up as an ethical principl. for nrocybernetin: the prin·
(iple of "'I""t for .)'Sum do,ure. Once it is broadened in conjunction with
Varda', later dffoupling of do.ure from autopoiesi., this ethico...,ntological
comtraint might well be considered 10 be in itself a di>tinet form of autonomy
(or at le",t • way of understanding ,uch a di>tin(t autonomyl- namdy, the
form of autonomy characteri>tic of the provisional (or lffhnical) dosures that
constitute today's SEll'. Today'. SEll', that i., simply rxpand an ethical per-
'peni"e originally developed for the purpose of respecting the consistency
of the human a. a form of the li"ing (that is. a. a being fOOted in biological
autopoie,isj; in perfe<:! analogy with human being. (and other living .)'stems),
SEHS will ha"e to be ob",r"ed from the standpoi nt of their operation, which is
to say in a manner that respects the conere .. te<:hnical dosurr(sj to which they
owe their comtitution.
Thi' broadening of the ethical pritKipl. moti" ating Varela. work goes hand-
in-hand with the discovery of continuity across 'ystems 1.,'e1s., as Varela explains
in the course of a '995 interview with hi' friend, Cornelius Castoriadis:
Life a> an auto-constituting proc,"", already contains thi ' distinction of a
for-itself that, as Corneille [Cornelius Castoriadi, I would "'y, i, the lOurer
of that from which emerges the imaginary, capable precisely of giving mean-
ing to what is only an array of physical objffU. This rootedne .. of meaning
in the origin of life is pre<:isely whe .. we find the no'-elty of this concepl of
autonomy. of autopoie>i •... . What I have just said. that the .. is an excess
of the imaginary that come> from this autocomtitution of the living, i, one
of the thins' I have learned in reading Comeille. And I would n.,'er haw
    HYBRIDS 129
dared speak Df the imaginary at the origin of life if I had not found this type
of continuity between biological phenomena at the origin of life and the
social domain. Note that l .ay continuity and not identity."
In Varela', description, it i, the exc .. , of the imaginary, coincidem with the
ad,'ent of living sy .. em" that driv .. the spiral of self· organization ever up·
" .. rd. Indeed, it i, the persistence of ..,If·organization across divergent I"'el,
of organization that effectively (alls for a rethinking of autonomy beyond auto·
poie,is. Doing justice to the fundamental continuity between the biological
and the social domain wm thus re<juire a oenain de· specifi(ation of autonomy,
such that the Ian .. comes to name the minimal conditiollS for a nonreducti,'e
=ognition of system unity." Generalized as a minimal principle of dosure,
autonomy form, the linchpin fo, an account of the human being as a multiply
differentiated. complexly recursive hybrid of mwlapping, though heteroge·
nraus, system, and SEHS,"
While such an account remain, beyond the r<"SOurces of Varela 's work. hi5
effort to develop a he·le",,1 scheme ofhuman emergence does take a ,maU step
in the right dir..,tion." Specificall)', it manifests. conviction that theorizing
human agency in a complex socio· technical world like ours re<juires a ''''ogni ·
tion of continuity aero" I""el, and an embrace of multiple and heterogenrous
forms of autonomy. concretely, the turn to emergence allows for the
preservation of consistency (what V Jrela call, the "unity" of the human) despite
the heterogeneity ofl"'el'- 'omd of typ'" of autonomy- invoked, Emergence,
that is, adds to Varela', lIexible and capacious conception of autonomy a global
perspective that i, Mt extrrnalto thr opcration of the organi,,,,, that Ii"". not
req"irem, exte,nal ob ... ,mlional v",,/age poi"r. because an organi,m (a nd, more
senera!!y, a system) institutes its ,tructural coupling with the en"ironment in
the very act of specifying il> own unity, its interactional domain being
external to it, in the sense of re<juiring an obserw,'s perspective; rather. the set
of imer.ctio", an organism can maintain with the en"ironment ooomes. like
the unity defining it, something that the organism itself specifies in the process
ofits ..,If· organizing en,.rgence. B)' int.grating t he interactional domain-what
Varela calls the ",urplus of or. sim ply, the "world" (., against the
"environment' }"--in t 0 the m wt i · Iewl, ..,If · di Ife rent iated syste m of the organ·
ism. this dial",tical conception of emergent sdfhood render> the interactional
,Jonra;n facto, in tile ongoi"g rvollllio" of the im",,,,lIy li;jferrntiatCiI 'Y'tem
of tt.. erg"ni,,,,,
However. the agency thereby accorded the environment remains highly
,,"nstrained. tndeed, if it doesn't ser"" simply to support the amopoi",i, of the
'ystem in que,tion (as it in'';lriably doe, for Luhmann and for Varela', more
delimited account, of the immunological and cdlul" ,ystems), environmen-
tal agency hrre functions exclusively to bolster cogniti". capacities that are
firmly rooted in the system's already '51ablished operationality. Indeed. the
"ery rationale of Varela', differentiation of world ("surplus of significance")
and environment is to "'parate out from the chaos of the latter preci",ly that
part which is <compatible with and supportive of the ag. ncy of the system. "
True to his claim that the en"ironment "pro"ides an 'eKcu", ' for the neural
"music' " of the organism.'" " arela remains unable to deploy the agency of the
environment   which is to say for it",lf.
Di",ontinuily: Casloriadi.
In the cour'" ofhisdiffefentiation of "world" from -environment," Varela . p«i-
fies that the "surplus of , ignification" it yields is due to tilt - pe ... p«li ... pro" ided
by the global action of the organism. " The surplus of significance, that is. result,
from the operation of the organism as • "for-it",lf" and thus properly concern,
what Varela glosses, with due r&cognition of it> potential for ",mantic .bu",.
a, the organ is", 's «;mag;""'y dimension."" Undoubtedly a reference to the
work of Castoriadis, this invocation of the imaginary opens a rift in V.rela',
biological holism, at least if we follow Castoriadis in differentiating (though
not di\'Ofcing) the imaginary from the biological matum. Spe<ificall y, it calls
on us to eKpand the foundation of emergence beyond the biological domain
assumed by Varela.
Such an expansion has the salutary eff&ct of according. cenain modicum
of (nontrivial) agency to the environment: whereas for Varela (at lea51 for the
Varela of AUJop<>ie,;, Cognm",,) it is the biological (or .utoroietic) or-
ganism that determines how (what part of) the environment can malter , for
Castoriadis, by contrast, the environment has the power to impel chang .. in the
'Y'tem (organism); accordingly, whereas Varela', org.mi.m r«cogni, .. only that
part of the e"" ironment thai supports 'Y'tem (organism) autopoi.,is (hence
the distinction bew, .. n "world" and «environment' .>such), on Castoriadi,',
account . the en"ironment matte", above all, a,,, sourre of"lrerity for a S)'51em.
This is a crucial diffe .. nce. for it starkly divorces Castori.di,', ""ncrption of
higher-order (social ) autonomy from any attempt to perpetuate autoroietic
autonomy at hi gher level •. of which the most notable is certainly th.t of Luh-
mann. Thus., in order for societie; to be autonornou5--\\'hich Castoriadis defines
.. -determining their ownl.w5" - they must be capabl. of dir&cting their own
transformation. a proce .. that requires an ope nne .. 10. indeed an embrace
of, (. nvironment al ) alterily. Blunt ly put . higher-order (,ociet.l ) autonomy
require, a break with .utopoiet ic autonomy. Emboldene<l by Varda' , remark
to me that Luhmann was the worst thing to hJ\'e to him, J want to
suggest that a full · sc.l. deYelopment of the Vardean 'yst em, pers(lfi ti,·, at
the societal leYel would fo ll ow the C.storiadi, (and not the more well-trodden
Luhmann ) fork toward the reconciliation of autonomy and .herity.'"
Ile<cau .. of its nonre<lucibility to th. organic. the imaginary entail, a proc ....
of world constitution a, something other than a tri"iaJ support for the organ-
ism' , ('y'tem ',) autopoiesi,. Cast oriadis expresses this dearly when he daim'
that "radical imagination ... i, what makes it possible for any being· for · itself
{including human,) to   an 0\>11 lor proper world] (rincEigettwdr)
'within' which it also posits itself. The ultimately indescribable X 'out the .. '
becomes something defi ni te and specific for a particul ar being, through the
functioning of its s.ensory and logical imaginati on, which -filters: 'form,,' and
'organi, .. ' the external ' shocks.' "" While this description .. ems emirely of a
piece with Varela', sUl"'rficially .imilar description of an organi.m', informing
of brute materiality, th. absolutdycrucial difference is that for Castoriadis., what
the 'y'tem reaches out to and in-form' i, md .. ally orher ro it. While thi' aherity
becomes the basi' fort he very creation of thesptem (and thu, n",essarilyceases
to be radically other), far frolll bei ng a sourc. for ongoing reproduction as it
is on Varda', ",count, it is the source for creat ion, for the creation of myriad
possible closures that, no malt er how provisional, each mark the adt'em of
something radically new."
In Castoriadis', work, thi' extra-biological dimension of the process of in-
forming the ent-ironment i, the "'Ufce for an '''plicit b ... k, at higher I .. vel, of
organization. with the autopoietic fom1 of dosur. and. accordingly, for a d",ou-
piing of autonomy (not so much, as Castori.dis would haw it, from dosure
se as ) from autopoiesis." Rather than guarant..,ing the self-p .. rpetuation of the
hing organi,m as the particular living organization that it is and must continue
to be, autonomy involv .. an ol"'ning up to alterity and a correlative opportu-
nity to alter the organization of the self: "Autonomy." Castoriadi, in,i>!,. "i,
not dosure but. rather, opening: ontological opening, the possibi lity of going
beyond the informational, cognitive, and organizational dosure characteristic
of s.elf-constituting, but hrrrrono"",u, beings. It is ontological ,ilKe to
go be)"ond this do,ure 'igni fies altering the already existing cognitive and orga-
nizational ' system: rherefor. constituting on,'. world and on.', self according
to or)," law,. rh"efore creating. new ontological rido5, another self in another
Hi, thoroughgoing antipathy to the term "do:sure" notwith>1anding.
it seem, to me that Castoriadi, i, he .. 'imply extending the argument, initiated
by Varela in hi. own d",oupling of autonomy from autopoie.i •. that closure
take. different. non-autopoietic forms at higher level. of organization.
To throri,. the extra· biological dimension of the imaginary, Ca"oriadi.
introduces the mncept of leaning-on. An expansion of Freudian anoe/;,;s, this
notion describes the capacity of the psyche to break from the natural stratum
while nonetheless continuing to find anchoring in it; in Castoriadi, '. work.
this operation of splitting through leaning· on will be rrpeatrd at sub.e.:tuent
Ind. of organizati on. up to and including the societal. Indeed, the concept of
leaning-on al low. Castoriadi. to detach the imaginary from the biological and
to correlate it with the role of institution, .uch that all world constitution (the
imaginary in-forming of an X), from the most primiti"e to the most complex.
n"e.""ily i",'ol"o, an intrinsic institutional element. Rather than being bio-
logic.lly determined, .. it is for V.rela, emergener i. thus properly imagin.ry
and, .. such, is (ons'ml",,/ but not detemlined by the biological stratum, "To
say that the in5litution of society /."n5 onthe organization of the first natural
stratum [defined as the ' ''''t and stable organization of a part ofth. world ho-
mologous to the organization of humans ... imple hing beings' [ mfan. that
it doe. not reproduce or reflect this organization. is not detrrminrdby it in any
way. lnstfad. society finds in it a ... ries of condition, . supports and <Iimuli,
stops and obstacl ... ·" Emphasizing that creation ex " Ihilo always implie, con-
"raints (biological abow all. but also "historic.l" .nd "intrinsic")," Castoriadi.
sharply differentiates his conception of emergence through radic.l imagina-
tion from Varda'.conceptualization of .mergence ex bios and from all modd.
that po.tulate a continuity of emergence, including "' ystems throry: " .. If-
organiZd.tion:· and "order from noi ..... " Like all continuist accounts------ewn
one that, like Varela' .. exploits the nonseparability of the local and the global
perspectives-these theories can at be .. furnish the n"essary- but never the
sufficient----<:onditions for .mergence.'"
With its emphasis on "" ,,;!u"lo creation through opening to the alterity of
the e""ironment, Castoriadi,' , work allows u. to modulate betw""n continuity
and di.mntinuity. to think the latter without .i mply ahandoning the former.
Crucially, it i. this capacity to implicate dismntinuity within mntinuity that
underwrites tM throrization of the human", an accumulation of multiple and
heterogenrous clo,ures. Ile<:ause it furnish .. the force behind all ""IS of crration
(which, contrary to Castoriadis". desire, I would associate with act, of non-
autopoietic closure J. the imaginary operates the fe-individuation ofth. n.tural
stratum (the biological organi.m) su(h that this latter becomes encompassed
within a broader. internally   multiple, and heterogeneou, process of
individuation, what we might wdl ,all (combining the urmi nology of Casto-
riadi, and Simondon) the instituti onal individuation of the human being."
Diorontinuou. Continuity: Simondon
It falls to Simondon to furni.h the theoretical underpinning. for such an ac -
count of the mmplex individuation of the human. In work richiy d.serving of
recognition in English-speaking contexts, Simondon de-oeiop. a mmplu theory
of individuation that spallS the continuum from the physical to the m lle<li,"
domain and that take, as its first prin,iple the essential inmmpletene .. of al l
pro< .... ' of indi,·iduation." At all levels from a "y'tal to a human "",ioty,
individuation always occurs in mnjun<'lion wi t h. "preindividual" domain, a
domain of exces, or alterity. which Simondon define< as "a certain  
of the indi\'idual "animated by all the potentials that characurize it.· .. Th.
preindividual domain furnish .. a source of excr., or alteritythat doe,n' t 'imply
perpetuate proc ...... of individuation but that-far more cTUcia ll y----ensur ..
their almo" mntinuous self-modification. their ongoing emergence, or mn-
tinuous creativity.
By mnjoining individuation and the preindi"idual, Simondon articulates a
concept of ontogen .. is or emergence that can l>e viewed aHxpanding insights
from Varela and Castoriadis toward the end of t heorizing the robust agency of
the '''''ironment. not :15. support for the system I individual) but for itself. As we
shall see, such theorization brings together a transductin aemunt of continuity
and discontinuity, a fluid shifting of scales between indi,-idual and mllect i" e
agency, and an attention to the crucial role played by technics in higher-order
proc ..... ' of individuation.
W. can get a dear sense of what Simondon brings to the n.ocybernetic
table .imply by contrasting hi' concept of the preindividual with V.rela' , and
Castoriadis'. broadly similar concept of the .nvironment. As we noted abow,
for the latter theorists, the environment must be "in-form.-d" or r.-duc.-d to a
"surplu, of ,ignificance" in order to be meaningful to an organi.m or 'pum,
Such . requirement emphatically has no role in Simondon, where the pre-
individual operates independentl)' of any preliminary acmmmodation to an
indi,-idual and thu, as an inescapable source of alterity for the indi\'idual. Thi'
difference ha, imjl'Drtant consequences for our understanding of emergence, for
where., Varela mnnects emergener to the co-functioning of local and global
perspectiws of" 'Y'telM, Simandon links emergence-which he defines:15 the
p"''''ge to a higher I",'r! of individuation, ane that encompa"'" the 'ystem and
134 MUK I. N.
lh. (preindi"idual) . n"ironmem- to a more encompassing re<;ontextualiz.a·
tion of individuation or. more exactly and more simply. to a (new) reindi"idu·
ation of the (same) preindi"idual charge of reality. For Simondon, in .hon,
it i. not .i mply the gloOOI p"r>pe<:tive ofth. organi,,,,-- a p"r>pe<:tiw tied to
the organism', specification of a world- that informs the bootstrapping of
identity from level to lewl; rdther, the upward spiral of individuation is dri"en
by two import,nt conditions: the nonidemillcation of individuation with any
form of individual (physical, biologicatp,ychic, or coliective) and the coupling
of individuation with the entire en"ironment as a sour,. of "preindividual :
  potential. T ogeth .. , the,., conditions ensure that emergence qua
individuation in"olv., a re<:ursivity that i, not dri"en solely or by the
organism' s demand. but that instead draws from the global ,itumiOJ>-the pre-
individual a. potential- within which all individuations neces.sarily occur.
It is crucial to grasp the distinction being made here: global , ituation (Si ·
mondon) differs from global p""'pecti"e (Varela) Me,,,,,, it is not rdatiw 10 th.
alont (or. mort" 10 the pi", it, world), in isolmion from
th. ,,,,'iro,,,,,,m. Put otherwise, if the global 'it uation i. a global perspecti"e.
it is not a perspecti"e 0fth. organi,m but a perspective on the entirt" proc"" of
individuation of which the organism is only one pan- a perspectiw, in short.
that situates the organi,m within the broader context of the preindil'idual.
Here. in other words. w. hal" a p"r>pecti,-e that coincides with what I hal"
been calling the s)"stem-environment hybrid, a mixed form of agency where an
individual (in most cases a human being) has cogniti," agency in conjunction
with an environment that it doe. not control and cannot .rouce.
Indeed. with his insi"ence on the primacy of relation and the resulting
double relationalit)" of indi,-iduation, Simondon adds a crucial component to
the concept of the s.,, - namely, continuity aero .. the potentiality-actuality
di"ide.'" Because it implicates both individual and preindividual. individuation
i. relational in two distinct sense. "nd within two different fram .. of ..
As the relation of the indi"idual and it< ",,,,,,,iatro milieu· (more or less syn-
on}mous with Varela. "world"). individuation occu .. within a single leve! or
"order of magnitude" and is, as such, entirely actual; such. relation i, roughly
equivalent to what Varela calis "structural coupling: A. the relation of the in-
dividual and the preindividual, by comrast. indi,"iduation occur> acrOM distinct
orde .. of and thus concern. the potential prior to or "beneath" it<
actualization. Not only doe, Simondon 's conceptualization of equiprimacy
of indiyiduation and rdation thus .ituat. ".truetural coupling" within a
encompassing ontogen",i.., but it also accord. the preindividual---that is, the
environment not already couplro to the individual ,)"tem_ mode of {l<>te"tj,,/
efficacy r()(lted in what he calls - nm aslabilily."" On Simondon' , accoum, in
short, agency .ncompasses the environm.m as a whole and as a soUl"e of po.
tential thai mayor may not actualized and. indero, Ih"t "",,<i not be <uwalixet/
b), Ihe org""j,,,, in order to impaci its indi "idualion, A, against Varda'. thinking
of continuity from out of the biological. in which continuity is and can only
actualized indi "iduals, Simondon's account of individuation ascribes
the continuity und.rlying .mergence to (preindi\'idual ) potential ,
For Simondon no I. " Ihan Varela and eaS1oriadi" Ih. human is a complex
entity comprised of multiple sy't.m, and ag.ncies. on. that is d.veloped on
th. basi' of .mergences or leanings-on Ih" cut acro ... 1 ..... 1, of organization
and defy the purity of n<'OC}"""rn.tic theorizati on narrowly concei'-ed. It i •.
how.ver. only with the introou<1ion of Simondon', complex, doubly relational
account of indi"idualion that we can gra,p the consi,uncy of Ih. human in all
of ii' complexily. r n large part, thi' i, due to th" central rol. Simondon grants
t""hnics: in hi ' work. which includes a Sludy oft h. ontogenesi, of t""hnical ob-
ject" Simondon situales I""hnies th. preindividual and a<1ualiud in-
di,-iduation. " As such, "'(hnies expands th. scope ofth. environm.nt' , agency
(and Simondon', focus on te(hnies, w' shoul d note, ha, much 10 do with hi'
appreciation for .n,-ironmental ag.ncy) , Speci fi cally, technologies mediate
th. preindi\'idual in a way that facil itates coll.ct i .... individuation. that are not
simply agglom.ration. of individuals but new, properly colle<:ti ... individu-
ations of prrindividual potential. Simondon ,ef ... to this kind of collective
indi"i duation as 'ransjn<ijvjdualj"". and il i. significant Ihal he alWCiate. it
consistently with Ihe «""'ntial" correlalion of human being with I""hnies, On
Simondon" account, transindividuation comprise. the ultimate Slage of the
indi,-iduation of Ihe human; to ,ealize Iheir full potential for individuat ion,
human being' mmt not only d. individuale th.m .. h, .. enough 10 reindiv;duat.
'" th. transindividual. but they must also rely on t""hnics to do ....
By correl.ting transi ndividuation and technics. Simondon furnishes a para-
digm for encompa"ing Ih.   the highly advanced Ie<:h-
nosph ... of today----as a nontrivial el.m.1l1 of cognili ... action. A, «symbol."
thai "expr.,," th. preindividual realityanached to Ihe subj""l, technical object,
transform Ihi. prrindi"i dual potential into an actualiz.d exces, that no longer
corresponds 10 the individual- associated milieu coupling but Ihal facilitates individual ion as a collective being. Technical obje<:ts transform the pre-
indi vidualre.lity associaled wilh the living individual into an a<:tualil£d source
of .nergy that, as Simondon puts ii, ",urI'''=- IlreindMrir"'/ whilestill pr<>kmging
jt." "The tran,individual," Simondon goes on to conclude, "is not e",erior 10
the individual and yet it detach .. il .. lflo some extent from Ih. individual. ""
t26 MUK!. N. H A ~ S U
dosures. the concrete machines that support it, but along with them. the
alterity of material mmplexification itstlf: "The play of inumity within the
ontological con'teUation is . . . a (hoieo of bring not only for itsdf but for aU
the alt.rity of the (OSIllOS and for the infinity of time""
The Autonomy 01 System_Environment Hybrids
Guattari', conceptualization of machinie hetewgenesi, expre,>es the ethical
imper.lliw we face today, the imperati"e to rm", the twin temptation, pooM by
contemporary environmental complexity, on the one hand. simply to dissolve
boundari ... altogether (Hayles), and, on the other. to harden boundar;'s into
a handful of durable autopoietic system types (Luhmann). How"',,. Guanari
doesn't himself grapple with the (oncre" difficultie, imnh'ed in developing a
viable model for the machinic orderings or ,ystem-environment hybrid, that.
arguably. mmprise the predominant forms of organization (or dynamic. pro-
"isional dosure) in our world today. To begin grappling with these difficulties,
I propose that we return to the inspiration for Guan .. i·, work and also for my
own intervention here-namely. Varela' , mnception of autonomy, spe<:ificaUy
in the mature, final form it tak ... oneo it ha. been de<oupied fromautopoiesi,.
What Varela provides is a <ommitment to continuity (not identity) across
difference and. in the wake of this commitment, an ethical perspecti," capable
of affirming the irreducibility of the human 35 a form ofliving e"en '" it tracks
the alterations inescapably impooM on thi' form of living by our world's eYer-
accelerating .,,,,ironmental complexification. To be blunt, what distingui,h .. a
Varela-inspired account of today's SEH' is its <Olllmitment to the irreducibility
of the human perspective in the face of its evtr more <omplexJy <onfigured
technical distribut ion.
Fleshing out ,u(h an ac<ount--'iln ",count that <onjoins a commitment to
human do,ure with the differential reiteration of closure across } ~ .. m lewis-
wm, of <ourse, r'"'luire us to move beyond the resources of Varela's proje<:t.
In what fol!ows, I propm<" a genealog), for such an expansion that detours
through the work of Ca,toriadi, and Simondon. In work that intersects directly
with Varela's research in biolom', Castoriadi, demonstrates the necessity to
move beyond not just the closure-openne .. binary, but more spe<:ifically the
level ·specificity of the operation of autonomy: whereas autonomy of the liv-
ing requires organizational elosu reo autonomy of P'Ychic and colle<ctiw beings
requir .. openne .. to alterity, which is to say willingness to emb.dc. precisely
that which motivates 'ystem change. And with h i, conception of indi,'iduation
forme<! by, 'he environmem q"" heuropoi.tic polrntialily. For Simondon, in
.hort, .n,·ironmental complexification drives individuation from Ihe gel · go,
Couple<! wilh Ihe realily Ihat, today, en,·ironmenlal complexification i, Ie<:hni -
cal complexification. Ihi' fundam.mal commilmenl renders Simondon' , work
perfffdy .uited for thinking Ihe comemporarr lechnob",nesi, ofth. human and
for ""Pressing lhe ethical irreducibility of a minimal neocybemelic commitmem
Ihal must form Ih. co .. of any such Ihinking,
I. following th. f<licitom concopt int roduced by   Edwin Hutchin. in
hi. "udy of n.vigation 'yst'"'" .nd pc.ctic ... upon   ..   ,hip>. Cognition
in tit, IVild. The ""'rc .... fo, Ih. epigroph ....... follow" "on Foe"ter. "Molecular
Ethology: 152; <orr<xted from the ,"""ion ciled i n V .. eI •• "Inlrodu<tion: Th. Ag<:.
of Hein, von 1'O<f"or: xv; Guatl"i. "M>ehini, Helerog"".,i.: '1' L:nour. "I, 11.<-·
MoJerni,.,i"n Occurri ng!" }8; =pl=i. in origin.1.
,. Luhmmn.   >9,
}. Ibid .. 27; empha"" in origin.L
4. Thrif,. "Remembering TKhnologi<:aI Uncom<iow; by For<grounding Knowl·
edge. of Po.i,ion:
S. The terminology her< i .. of con .... Luhm.nn·" though I.rgely be.ide the poin' he ....
I ,ide wi,h V .. <I. in cL.iming ,ha, orgm;,mic .nd ,uborgani<mK dO.Ufe ;,cogni'ive
.nd yield, "",.ning for the 'r>'em in Gu .. 'ion.
6. V .. el •• "!nlroduct ion: The Age< of Von I'ocr.;!<r: ".
7. s..... von F""",!«. "Molecul .. E'hology: 15>.
3. H.yl",. My Mother IVo,,, umrpult'I". 2So.
9. CI .. k. Naluml 80", 7, "Wha, r<ally ""'ne ..... " Clark cont inu ... "migh, be
ju" jluidily of 'ho hum.n·machino in'ogmlion and 'he r .. uhing Ira"'fon"atiD"
of our c' p.ociti, ... p,oj<,<, ... nd li f"",yI ... It i. th.n.n empi rical Gue"ion "hether
t he groat .. , bandwidth and Ii .. wi,h full implan' li.'Chnologi •• or
wi,h l'idl-d<>igned nonpon ..... i.o mode. of p<T>Onai ougn"n"'ion. Wi,h r'P,J
to the critK. 1 fealllr .. j"!t mentioned. J beliew th.u ,he m",t pot""t n .. ,·futu ...
technologies will be tho.. ,h .. off« integ .... ion and ,,..n.forma,ion ...;,ho", impl.nt>
or .urgory: hum;m-m.ochine meTJ;<f' ,h ... imply bJ'P'U'. wher !h..t.n penetrate. ,h.
old biological bord<rs of olin and .kull" (""); <mph .... in origin.l.
10. Ibid .• 5.
Il. Ibid .. \0; emphaseo odd.,J.
ll. Ibid., g5.
I}. Ibid .• Il,
4 . Gu.n .. i. " M>ehinic \7' emph •• i • • dded,
's. Ibid., \g.
16. Ibid .• 21.
'7. lb>d .• l.j.
's. Ibid .• ,6.
'9. M"urana .nd VOle!.. •• Autopoi ..... • """ ""'pi=i> added. · An'ion i, al,,'aY'
• rdor mula, io n of • ph.nomenon ,oowing how i,. m mponenJ> gene ",to i, thro<lgh
, int..,.ac,iom.nd re);nion •. furthermore. an uplanotion i. al""y. gi"en by u • ..,
oo..r ... ", • • nJ ,I c<"'r.1 1o d"t,nl u,," '" " ... hal p<rt<1'"' to Ih< ",", ron,'iluti;"C
of,,, p"""o",,"okJgy /rom whalprrlll;n, 10 'If do""'in of d<Kr'plio" •• nd h""c. to our
inter.Ktion. with it. il> component> . nd 'h< conte" in which i, i. """,,,'«1.
ou, d<">C,iptiw oomain ori"", bee. u"" we .imul'aneou>iy b<holJ ,I>< unity.nd it>
inter.ction. in ,he domain of """",,·ation. notions .. i>ing in theJom.:tin of de",rip-
tion do nof p<"rla," fO thocon11i'ut iYe org.niz .. ion of ,he unity (phmommon) '0 b<
explained· (ibid .• J}: .JJ«I).
>0. "£ntr .. ien Comdiu.Ca;tol"iadi> ot Fran<i><o   '0;'-); my ,ranola-
". Soch. d"p<Ci[,c.tion i. central.o V ... 1.'. fi", m.joT..,1<> WOf', "',"apk, of Fi<>-
lagiml Aulonom), · Wh., other .utonomou. oy>!""'" in mmmon with living
' )'11<m. i. ,h.t in them, too. ,I>< proI"'r re<ognition of the uni'y i< in'imately' ied '0,
and occur> in "w" 'p><e '!"'<i['ed. by 'he uni'y', o'gani".'ion .nd op<ro' ion,
Thi< i< p,«i<..Jy '" n.., .uto""m y ron note>; a .... " ion of the . )">tem·, iden' ity 'h rough
it> f<IIKtioning in .uch. way that oo.erntion pro,,_"';, 'hrough ,h. wuplingbetw<'<n
the """'ITeT .nd the uni, in the in ",hich uni'y'. op<ration ocm",'
(V .... I., ofF,o/;,giml Autonomy, 5-1; .m"ha.;, in oTiginal).
n. Thi, decoupling rompri ... V.,da'. T" pon", to . tt<mpts '0 g<neraliu tho applica-
tion of . utopoi .. i. to nonli"ing hum.n .y>tem •• ouch a. "",;.1 in1titution •. Calling
t ....... c"<go ry mi 11,rn • be<au"" they • conf Ill< au IOpoi ... i. with .u'onomy: V.,d.t
.peei&. au,opoin;" ",hich i< henceforth defin<d by it> ,.,triction to Telation. of
p",duction of ""m< kind .nJ it> TdOT<nee to topol<>gic.1 bounda,ie> .nd to con-
ceptLUli", autonomy, .uch thot it beeom ..... il.ble to cn..r.cteri,.. 'ich >"iety of
'y>tem" "The Td.,ion> that ch.,oc!<,ize outopoie.i< .. rdation. of p,odudio,,,of
componmt>, Fu rth.,., ,hi. ido> of compon<nt proouction •• ito fund. mental
"feTc'Ilt, chemical produc. ion. C i,m this notion of production of compon.nt>, i,
follow> 'hot the ca ... of autopoini ..... con octu.Uy nhibit. '<lch •• li"ing 'y>tem.
or model c .... like the 0 .... de«riOOi in Ch.pte, 3. h.v • .,. cri,.,ion of di<tinction
• topological boundary, .nd the pTOCe»e! ,h., define them occu, in • phy>ical -lih
.pace •• ctu,) OT . imutated in. computer" (V.,d.t, Princ,pl" of8iologjcal Autonomy,
s..; emph..,i, in o,igin..!).
2), In "Org.niom· ('''9,), V",d. Jiffere"ti.t .. fi, .. l"". b of ""lIbooJ ,h.ot . re corrd"ted
through ·T«iproc.1 ca=li,y· b<tween the locol .nd tl>< gloh.ol. V.rel .. enumeT-
.... fi ... uch levd. (OT form. of idontit y) with fi .. (orrd.ti\,< ",,"gion.1
..,1, ... · , (,) ceUul., id.nti, y (bioJogicaI ,..[{); (2) immunological identi'y (bodily .. If);
(3) b<ha vio,al id.n,ity 1 cogniti v< ",If ); 14) p<r><>na1 iJen,i ty (oociolingu i>1ic ..,11)" od
(s) _ial iden' ity (roll. cti, .. ",If), On t hi. moo.l, tho id.n,ity of.n OTgani.m i.
hi shly di ffe,,'O tiated i n ,he '" n .. ,hat it .n( oml">Se> mul tipl. k\·el. of cleve lopm.n"
<>eh of which ena<:to • proc .... of .. If-ron>fitu ti"n. Though ."h of the .. " «gional
.. I"", compri=.n """"gmt I<" el of devdopTTWnt. from til< most b.o.ic «llul.,
K1rntity common to . U liviTIg orgoni,m, to the mo,t 'p«ioi i,eJ personal ""d col-
leni,'< identity ch>r.K1<ri>1ic of hum.TI organi.m;, they •• ch Ji' pby the .. me pot-
1<Tn of cont inuous ",If-'p<'<ification of ,y"emic bound";,,, in th. f>te of con>l.nt
p"rturb.tion. from th •• nvironment. Vor.i •• wil lingn ... in thi' .... y to <mb","
" ree. nt notion, of prope""" in highly di!1fibut..J. mOOul ... y"em'
folio",. J irt'CtIy upon hi. in.ight. formuLIlro., t979 in Pr;,,';pks. into the
n"" .... rily dimibutro ><Op" of hum.n cognition; "''),. oct of under"anding i. b.o-
.ic.ny i><}'Jlld our wil4 prffi",ly b.<:au", the .utonomy of th. socioi . nd biolog;c:tl
'y>tom Wf! are in s<><> i><)'ml/our ,kuU. bec.lU", our ",olution mak ... '" p.rt of.
>o<ioi . ggr<g>l< . nJ . natufOl 'ggr<g>1<. ",hich hav< an . ulOnomy compatibk "'ith.
but not frJ"cibk to, OUf ,utonomy"" biolopc.l individu.I," (Va",la. Princip/" of
/JioU>gUa/ Au'o"omy. 176; empfw..s in original).
1.1. V .,01 •• di>1inction il<tw",n world .nd em'ironment .nd tho correl."eJ notio n of
• -.urplu> of   p"rmit>. folding of the intcr.K1ional domain into th.
')'>t.m. Where .. - .nvironment" de>ignat ... the environment o/the livings)'>t"'" ••
v;.wed from th. ob",,,w', p""p<'<ti,". "",'orld" d.not<. the .nvironnwnt for the
'y>lem. which, il< .pe<ifi ... "is J<finro in th.", me mov."",nttMt g"" ri .. to it>
identity . M th .. only ex;'" in th," mutual definition" (V .. eJ... "Org.mi.m: 8\).
Ilecau .. it del<rmin<> 0 ,yst<m'. in t<foct ion.1, work! comp,i",. an "e"<ri-
orllation" Of definition of"whot rem,in, < .. <rio, to 110. .y>1.m a •• un ily!" that c.n
'only be und<f>tood . . . from Ih. ';'· "The . U'Opo,,,K un;ly," V.rd .. rgu< ••
"<Tro,., a   ffOm ",hich til< ext.nor i. on •• which c.nnot be confu""; ",' ilh
the phy>icoi .u,rounding> •• th.y ' PP"" '" u •••   (8;: emphasis in origi-
n.]). V.r,", describe. t il<« be,,.,....,, and ",orld a •• ""'rplus
of .ignificance" pTOduc..J by the organi,m', P""I'""ti ... nd ",,""" not only th .. il
"h.unt> lhe urid"""riding of the living anJ of cog nilion." but abo, .nd crurnlly. ,hat
il l;', ·.t th o root of how , ..,Jf Ix-come> on. - (SII). h i. the .urplu> of
t hat infold, 0 world into ,he »"tem', pe"pt"C1i" .. : .i nc< il compri .... tho product of
the diahlic.1 func'ioning of ,h. organi.m, the surplu. of .ignif>e .. io n fo,m •• pon
of ito ..,Jf-.pecif>e.,llion. "Whal i, m ... ningful for on o'goni,m," VOTe!. ompt", i,."
"i, PfKi><Iy giwn by it> con>litulion . , 0 di!1ribu,eJ proc .... with on indi..ociabl.
link b<twt><n local proc""". whore.n in!<mction OCCUf> (i.<" ph)" ico-ch"",icoi
fo,c .. :K' ing on lhe cell ) •• nd the coordin"ed en' ily ",'hich i. lhe ,utopoi<tic unity.
ri .. '0 tho ofi" <nviTOnm.n' ",it bout t il< no.J '0 r<>ort to, c.ntr.J" (86). At th. biologic-.ol lo"el . idenlity i. .. inro 'hrough ' he organi.m '.
con, inuo,", inler.>etion with the enviTOnment. ",·hich funcl ion. both to .pecify t he
organi.m·, bound.ri .. and 10 car", ou' ito work!.
1;. In. &velopm<nt more .pecif>c 10 ,he thNril.1Lion of omerg.nce, the 0p"ning of
'y>lom op"mlion to modilintion in>!ig .. ..J by it> "world" com!",!. V .. e], to com-
piicot< til<', con>1itulive J i.kc,ic. 10 doubl. th. "diakcl>c. of ,he .. ]f"
wi,h • "di.l""lic, of knowlroge." Thi. doubling po.itions the in!<gr.'ion of Ih.
140 MARK!. N.
in ""T>dion.1 d om.> in ., ,h. <or",I ... of ,h. coupling or "OOot.' ''pp ing " oflo<ol and
global per>pe<'i, ... ,h., comp';,.. iden'ity ."he ""iou, 1.,-01. of ')->lem ope"lion,
"'The key point. " V.rd ... !"'cifi ••• "i. ,ha"he organ;'m brinll' for,h and 'pe<ifi ..
it> own domain of problem' .nd >dion, to be ·",Iv..!·, thi' cogni' ive domain doe>
no, oxi>l 'ou"ho",' in . n environm.nt ,h.,     •• landing p..J for . n organi.m
,h"wm,how drop.or i. puachuI"! in'o l hoe world. In>l, bei ngund ,
world. of m<>ning ".nd in rela,ion to ,.eh o,her 'hrough mu,ual ,projimtion or
ro-Jd .. minalion· (V",dol, "Orpni.m: 10); ""'ph .. ;. in original ).
,6. V .. .t., i'TiN<;piff of /JioIogical AUlonomy, '76.
lJ. V .. <I., "Organi.m," SS.
,S, V.",1a made ,hi, , .. It er c.,ua! remark to me du';ng. b ... k .. ,he confe",nc. honor-
ing C.,loriadi. hold .t Columbi. lini ... "i')" in ,<>00.
'9. C. !lo'; ..Ji,. "l(..Jicallm'gination and ,he Soc;.,)' Ins'itu'ing Imagi nary: J16; em-
ph ..... in original ,
30. c.. ,lo,;,di. utend, thi. muelu," .ll,he w>y down, •• i,I"''''' .uch that .ven tho
mo>l primi' ive form, of org.tnic .df-org.>niZJ.lion--for oumpt., t he cellular- .. k<
piKe ' lt rough .uch an "mmption of radicol .ltcri'y by Ihe octi" i'y of 'ho radic.1
im.gin.'ion: "What doe> • prope.- world .ignify? The", i. n",,,,,,,,,;ly each ,im<'->1t
I,." .. won., on. reach", ,he cdlula r I""d---pr<><ntation, repre...." .. lion, . nd ,
bringing into rdotion [mist "" rnalionj of that wh"h i. "'I'r"",nt«l. uruiniy 'th ...
;" ",mething   ,h ... i. X, But X i, not information, "" it> ' -orr d .. ign .. ion
here indica'e>, It ' inform. one only of ,h. r.:.lowing 'hing: th.1 ' ,here i •. ' It i, mere
,j,ock. An,'0.1 ("" . h,J1 rcmm '0 , h;'). A. ><>on .. . n).hing more rould b. >aid
. oou, it, i, would have . Ire.dy enter"! into t he play of ',ubjec'i,-"
and ultim.tely. "ven ,hi • • mp'i..!, evi"",.,«Ilirni, ca .. of ""tonnin .. ion ,h. t "'.
"" colling ',here is' is no, .. emp' from th. follo.,-ing q"">lion: For whDm i. ,he,,,
IOm .. hi N a' ur< ron ... in. no • inform .. ion' w.iti ng '0 be g .. her..!. Thi. X become.
wm .. hing only by b<ingformed (in-formed) by ,ho for-i,"'f th., form. it: 'ho «II,
immune 'ystem. dog, ""man be ing, «<. in qU<"l tion. Informotion i. CT""'N by .
'.ubjeel'----<lbviouoly in it>   manner of doing so" (C.>!o";'d;', "Th. St.te of ,he
Subj<'<' Tod.y: 4 S; .mph . .... in o';gin.I ),
Jl. Wh<lher .nd to wha, exten' ,hi, concop,ion of ,i>< im'gitury .lto '<qui", •• b .. ak
wi,h '"topoi ..... ,lower b od. of organiu'ion i. beyond ,h. scope of om concern
h, ... s,..., ,h. ci'.tion in 'he nol< ju>' pr«:. din"
J', c.. ,w,i.di •• -The Logic of .. and t he Que>t ion of Au,onomy," Jl0; empn....
in original . .... the radic.1 capacity '0 give on,,,,lf on.', own I.w>, .u'onomy r .. ult.
from the "",arKi pa' ion oft he radic. 1 imagi nary from biological .nd ><><ial -hi>! o,;cal
clo.ure: "The .utonomy of the individu.ol con.;'!> in the imtaur.,ion of on olher
rdation.hip betw .. n ,h. roA« ,i ... in ... nee and ,he o,h .. p>ychiGOi in>!oncn ..
",011 •• betw."" ,he pr .... n' . nd ,he hillory "' h"h made ,h. individu.1 ,uch .. i,
Thi, reialion>hip mak., i, po"ibt. for Ih. individ .... 1 to """P" 'ho ""ol""«r,,,nt of
repe'ition, '0 look back upon i,.df, '0 reA«t on , h. """n for iLl though" . nd tho
motiv" of i11 .<1., gui<kd by the ducidation of in deoi" .nd aiming at the tru,h.
Thi. autonomy .. n   olter beluvio, of the indiviJu • .J. a. _ rooit i,'ciy
know. 111i. m.,.n> th .. the individu..! i> no longe, , pu,e and "",.iv. p,oduct of it>
I"ych. and history.OO oftb< inst itution. In OIh", word .. the fo,mation of. ... ik<:tive
and d.lib. ... in" ... , • • that i •• of true ,ulo.i«lil'ily. rIff> the ",dic.1 im,gin.tion
of the ,ingular hum,n oong '" sou,co of c ..... ion , nd all<rntion . nd allow. thi' be-
ing to attain"" ..rft'Cliv< f....,Jom· [C."oriodi .. ' I\:>w<..,. Politi". Autonomy: ,61;
.mpha"", in o,iginol).
J). Castori.odi .. 'nr. Imagin" f)' i",,;M;olr of Sori<I),. ').I; .mph .... in origin.l.
).I. C.sto,i.odi .. "Radic.llm>gina'ion and tb. Society Instit uting ) m.gin.,y: 3))-)5.
J5. C.stori.odi .. ' POl""",   Autonomy: 145.
)6. "W. li," in , world of colo" th .. cre .... bu, t h':l1 " .. do nOl c ..... o <'fIt i,ciy a,bi-
t rnrily b.c.u"" th<')' rorr<1pond to ",m<thing, n,mely to , h •• hocx. t lut w. fI.,«ive
from the <x1<YlJ.1i w"rld. And thi> n .. tio n c.n!lOt be   ' 0 ,he .impl. "'..,-
><mbli ng of. ho.t of kxal thing>. Ind.....!. t he fOK1 th .. . grouping of obi.d • .oJ
th.i, Ionl conn<"<t ion. fuonion ••• condi,ion. I .. d. to this ide •• in my opinion
totally .I.mentary but .stoni.hingly forgonon in t hi, J i.«".ion. of the J i>1inction
between n<"< .. oary and .ufficient coooition>. In orde, roT the G,..,k> to n .. t. ,he
demo, ncy. philosophy ... ",ntif .. m<thod. elc. th.,. " .. , •• host. ioo.....! on
infinit)'. of nec .... rycondi'ion • . .. for . Llmpl • • G,,,,k which i>. n<C<>-
.. ry bot [lOt ",f/icirn, condi""n; th ... i>.n a!flOit yof m •• ning but >omelhi ngcl .. i.
Y"lui ... d to crea" the pol; •• nd ,he oth", cr ... To b. yel mOf< pr«:i..,. cr.ation
n<yer 13k .. place ;" ,,;",Ionor {Um ";"'1,,, "'. fo, m, it i. <x n;"i/o. That i. ,h. hi<:. ,o.
bottom ]in •• and it IS fOT that , .. ..,n th.t J beli"", non-li n ... m,l1hrnlati .. can .t be,
only furnish an u pool d.><rip'ion of I. ,odi<:01     (CaS1oriadi •• "fntr<lirn
Corneliu. c."o,iadi. el Fr.""i"o Vard.: "4- 15; <mph .. i> in o'iginol ).
J7. "Within , hi. an importan' pI"". mu" 01",,)'> b. fOWld for the fi' >1 "'tu,ol
",,,tum. ",h"", being and being-thus I for human> '" li>ing b.ings) i. the condi,ion
for.he <xi"<nce of >oeiety. lIut at the .. m. time. th i> .t , .. Um i, n .. ·cr, and could
n<y., be. tak." up .imply., . uch. I"h., bolong>'o it i, taken up in and through
t he magflUl of . igniftc"ion, in!titut..! by >OCie1y. and in thi. w.y it i> tr. mub"anti-
.,..! 0' ontologic.Uy alto",d. It i •• I .. ....d in i", mod. of being inasmuch", it <x;'",
and exi. l , only by ""son of it> im ... tm<nt by "gnific.'ion. It i. 01", . t .. in it>
mod. of org,:,"i,"ion .nd cannot help but b. . I .. ",d in ,hi. w.y. FOT not only i>
t he mode of o'XaniZo11ion of , h. world of .i!7'ific"ion. not the . n .. mbli .. mode of
organiw",n of the fir>! o.tUfol ""'um. but .Iso. from t ho moment ,h ........ rything
h .. to . i!7'ify ""melhing. 'hi>     o'g.Jniz.:nion doc> not •••• uch. an.w., the
qu.>1ion of .i!7'ification.,nJ « .... to be.n " .. n an "",.mbh>1 on."
IC.>1o,i.di" fh, i""'gi""f)' 1">liI ,,lio" of SocU:I),. 2)5).
)S. Fo,.n in'roducto,y .... y in ':ngli.n, ><. Gilbert Simondon. "'The Gen.';. of the
)9. Simondon. "Th. G.r=i. of th" Indi>idual." )06: . mph..,i, .dd.J.
40. Simondon·. in.i>t""'< on ,h. p,i m.ocy of ,.Lbon (0' the "lui prim.Ky of ,ci.Jt ion and
indi>iduotion) fo,m •• crucial . 'reet of hi> clu,.tCteriwion of the p ... inJividu.d a.
"Individu.tion .nd r<i..llion .... im<p" .. ble; ,he capaci.y for r<l.II ion i •• p" "
of being. and ente" in it> defini.ion md in 'he d.·termi"".ion of it! limi'>: ther, il
no limi' bet", ... n .h, indiyidu.I and i" ",,' i,-i' y of rel, t ion. Kda,ion i •• he ron'em-
rorary of being; i, fo rm •• p.rI of being bo.h   .nd 'I'"i.Ily. Rd.,;on
e,iSls , imuh.meously wi,h being in 'ho fo rm of.he flclJ • • od tho poI<n. ial,h .. i.
Jelimi" Idtfi,,;rj ;", not form, l. Il<ing in, polen,;,1 fonn doe. nOl mean ,ha,
one,!:), 00.. no' "'i!t" (Simondon. L'lI.Jividu ,I '" grnbr p"y>icl>-biDiogiqu<, 141).
4'. By ch .. ,"orizi ng 'he poIon,;.,lily of th« nyironmen' os "m",..,t.bili,y: Simondon
diff"ren,;",.. it hom the , irlual 011 Kcoun' of it.! pecuh .. "",u.h,y; urging UI '0
rrlmin from corK,i,ing "pr<inc!iviJuai ,,,,h,y',, "pure "irtu.oi i'y.' Simondon ins;'"
,h., " .. '""" il •• ",wit.bI, reality ch.'¥oo wit h po'en';"]. ,hal .re . ctually <xi,, -
ing .. ro'en';"! •• th. t i, to .. y ••• ,he ''''''l,1' of " met.".ble ,),>."",. (Simonci on,
L'llIdi..;;/rm,ion p,),cniqu, <f rolImiw. ' ,0).
42, Simondon, Vu nwb d',mu",,, d" obi<" ..
4J. Simondon. L '/",lil'idU<lI;DII p,yc/riqu< <I roll«rivr. 156.
44. S,;.,gI ... T ,dlllV:> alld ·nm,. Vol." 111< Fa"11 of  
Self.Organization and Autopoiesis
TUNSlAHD IY MANS· 'HOIG .. 0 ..... WITH "UC' CUI ...
Edi,o,,' noU, W. !rv. •• tlOn,lotlon from finfijhrung In Iii. Sysum,h.IJfi.,
tr on" ,ip! 01 • t.<tUlO mann!""" . t th. Uni .. 01 dufi n win' .,
t.,m ' 99'-9" TIl. book wa. lour vu" alt •• luhmann', ••• on tho Ini!ia''''.
of i! ••• itor, who   .ditNi IO,ord •• mat.,lals .nd .dd. d tho lootno,"" TIl. t<xt
IOprodu,". 0101 01 . I .. tm. ".dlOUM to n","com." to ,v". m,
no n .. adomi< ,ontw, In tholollowl ns di >C"<S""', a, . n . .. mpt. 01 to. setl-<>r8ani .. t Ion
of "ru,tUlO' . uto""I.!I, ,v".m., luhmann d,d .. around tho phonom.non 01 Ion-
!U'!!< "'Qul.iUon. lo"su.S' ,.nnot b. Into 1>""0"'" on "Input" I»' th ....
,on produ« ",nBuaso . , ·output · Rath." In th o co-production 01 ond "",101
Ii "gui.!!, structu,", and 0"" fa tkln' «If-ofllil n i,. . t . 1 0 duo to I,
construct; ° os 01 communi,.t kI • .....,nr. I n thol, envl,on m.nt.
Stlf-organization and autopoi",i, are two distinct concepts that I ddiberdtely
keep apan. Neyerthele, .. ooth are baS«! on the thfOrem of operational do-
.ure-that i" bolh are founded not only on a difference-thfOretical but al"" on
• princip.llyoperational concept of the .)'Stem. This is to .. y that the system h.,
only ii' own operatiom .t its dispo .. !' In the 'ystem the", is nothing else than
its own operation" and thrse operation. serve two different purro"'.
The first purpo>e i, the formation of its own structure,. Th. structure. of an
operntionilly dosed sy"em are nrcessarily by its own ope"'tions.
Put differently, the", is no importation of . truclUres from elsewhere. This i,
c.ned self-organization. Strond, the 'ptem ha. only its own operations at its
di'posal to determinelh. historical , tate, or, if you will, the temporal prrsence,
from which ..... 1}1hing else has to emerge. With respeo to the ')'Stem, prrsence i,
determined by its 0"" ope"'tion,. For instance, whJt r ha\'. said just now is the
point from which r ha"" 10 proceed when I con,iderwhat I can sarfurthcr. What
I am thinking just now, what happen. in thi' moment in my consciousness.
what I perceive, is that which constilUt .. st arting point for the conceiv-
ability of perception,. I know that I am in this room, at thi' ptace.
and in were to erratic jump', I would have to considrr the possibility that
I took drugs and am thorefore unable to achieve the normal continuity of
perception that would help to the occurrence of surprising ..... nt,. W.
are dealing, then, with two facts: first, with -sdf-organization" in the sense of
a creation of a mucture by mean, of a system' s own operat ion" and, .. cond,
with ·autopoi .. in the sense of the determination ofa Slate that make. funher
oper,ltio", possible by mean, of the operation. of the same 'ystem.
For a start, I would like to >ay something about self-organization. It is perhaps
best to bq;in with the realization that structure. within an operational theory
are eff"ti .... only at the moment at which the system operat ... Here you can
see a distance from classical conception. because this contradicts the concep-
tion Ihat structures are that which i, persistent while processes or operation,
are that which fad .. aWdy. In this throry, Ihe structures are rele"ant onl)" in
the present . They can be made use of, if one may say so, only when the  
opewes, and anything that has happened at some other time or will happen
.t some other time is either in the paSI or in the futme but not current. ;\.11
descriptions of structures that extended in ti me----and thus e\'erything that
one sc",. if, for instance, one sees that we are having thisl"lure alway. at the
same time and always in the same classroom with perhaps not always the same
people present but in any ""se with always the .. melectmer- are related to
structures that in tum demand an observer for whom the .. me is true-thai
is, whoobse,,,,, this only when h. obse,,'" it, that i, to say, when he i5 acti ....
or in operation. No malter if one thinks system in operation or re!ates
the operation to the obse,,·.tion of other operations, e\'erything is relati .... to a
theme of simult aneity, presence, or the current moment. system has to be
in operation in order to be abl. to use structures.
Thu" if now wants to know what a structure is, what a psychological
structur. is, how one would charactrrize persons, how one would describe
them, how one would depict their habits, or, if one thinks of social .y.tems,
how one describes a uni\'e"ity----<>ne aho see, that the description i. in tum the
description of an obse,,'''' One identifies the structures, but on. does it only
when a 'ystem that does it does it. Thi' impli .. that the descripti"e marking of
structures is completely rei.ti,·e to a 'ptem's operations. And accordingly, this
al"" means that projections into the past, and thus the falling back on the past,
and, .imilarly, anticipations of the future, ha"e to be adjustrd to this theory.
The structur. i, . I" .. only effective at the cu rren! moment, and the past data
thai are used in the moment are related to the actualization of projection,
into Ih. future. In the present, and only in Ihe present. there is the coupling of
Ihat which is commonly called memory wilh thaT which is normaUy called an
"'peclation Dr a proj<"ction----or, if one Thinks of aCiions, a goal.
Memory is nDi astored pasi. The past is paSI and can newr become current
again. Memory is more a sort of consiSlen,)" test, for which it is typically un-
n« .. sary to remember when one has either Ie. rned or not learned something
particular . When I speak German righT now, I do nol hay. To know when I
learned thi s language and how ;t came to t h;. or when I med particular words,
such as "aulOpoies;'," for the first time or when I read them for Ihe firsT lime.
With respt<TIO IhaT which one aims at for the future in the conten of expea. ·
lion,. anticipations, goals, riC. , deci,i.·e i. IhaT which i, currently on Ih.
current lesl of the breadlh of Ihe .,-.ilabilily of .truclUres. if you will . So far,
th;. i, a t horoughly pragmatist approach. There is. conneCTion between lhe
Iheory of memory. on Ihe one hand, and a pragmatic orientation toward Ihe
fuTUre. on the olher hand, which is   nicely narrowed down so That on.
could perhap. al", say thaT memory is nDihing bUI a perpeTUal con,i"fI"y lest
of different bit. of information wiTh respt<t to spt<ific expeCTaT;"ns, be il IhaT
one imends something, be il that one i, afraid of something, be;t ThaT one sees
someThing coming and wanlS To react to il. Thi' theory of memory doe, nDi
,uppose any kind of 'Iorehouse, which neurophpiology seems 10 confirm. ' In
the nervous syslem one does not find a past ThaT would be ,mred in particular
nerve ceU,. but one finds a cross-checking. a tesTing of var;"u, roUTine habit ,
aT parTicular occ.,ions al particular moments.
Therefore The COn(epl of expe<laTion suggest. itself to be used 35 the ba.i,
for the definition of STrucTUre,. Stru<lures are expt<lations in relation to The
conn«ti,·;ty of operations., be it of mere experience. be iT of aaion; and ex-
pe<laTion in a sense that doe, nol ha.-em be understood as subj«Ti,-., despile
a criTici,m of Ihi' concepT of expt<lal ion that a«use, il of .ubj«ti\'izing Th.
notion of .trucTUre. How.,,-.r. Ihe tradiTion of the concepl of expectation is
much older and not necessarily ge.,-M toward p'ychic STru(lures. In Ih. '93'"
the concepT of expt<l.tion was introduced to increase The complexiTy of rigid
input-output relations Of , 1;mu]Us-resl'0nse model<----for instaner, in order
to be able to imaginelhaT stimulu, and fe.pon .. are nDi wilhin fixed relations
mward one anDiher but are rather controlled by the expe<Ctations of the '}"Slem.
One can identify a stimulus only if one ha. 'pecifi( expt<tations. One searche.
Ihe terrain wiThin which one percei ... s. m l hin which one ""eives"imuli. wilh
""1"(1 To expt<TatiollS that one norma]!y has Dr habituaUy .uppose-s in a par-
ticular ,ilu3Iion. This i, also whe .. the notion of "generalized·· expe<lation<
(G. H. Mead) (omes from. Initially th;. "",ant a break wiTh the older behavioriST
psychology. but then il was ,aken O\-er by social theory in the .. me Ihal role.
are bundle. of exl""'ation. and that communicalion expres .. s expectalions
of what p<"rsons respe<1ivdy thin k by Ihemstlw •. Exp«talions
Ihus express the future asl"'" of meaning Ihat can eilher given psychically
or within social communication.
Il«ause Ihis theory defin .. the concept of ,tructure on the basis of expecta-
lion'.lhe distinnion is unimponant for it. In Bielefdd, wr onc.
had a discussion with Johannes Berger, who c,iti( i1£d expectation as a subjedi"e
concept, and Ihm as one impractical for sociologists, who are more intere>ted
in objeclive social struclures.' If you h,,-e taken courses in structural analysis.
you wiU also probably haw Ihe imprl'Sllion thai structures a"objecti'" facts thai
can be established slalistically. or Marxisti,aUy, or however, without ha,-ing to
determine in a rdati,'e manner what indi ,-idual persom Ihink. But
in my approach to .ystems theory. you will see thai I try 10 lea"e Ihis subjen-
object di>linction behind and replace it with the distinction between. on the
one hand. the operalion that a system aClUaUy I",rforms when it performs it.
and. on the other hand. the observalion of this operation, il by this system
or be it by another .}'Stem.
The concept of exp«talion then no longer contains any subjective compo-
nent. Inslfad. the mncept of asks Ihe question: How do >tructures
achieve the reduction of complexit), wilhout reducing Ih •• ystem to merely
one capacity? How can one imagine that a dispo ... of a rich ,-ariel), of
structures------<>f!anguage, for instaner-without being limited by the choice of
this or that sentence. and thm without immediately losing again thi' vdriety
of To the contrary, often structures are established ",thout the inten-
tion or abilityto determine the situation in which one will make use of them.
The concept of structure ha, to explain why the   does not ,hrink when it
continuously has to make decisions. when it continuously ha, to p<"rform this
or that conn"'ti,'e operation- why it does not shrink but p<"Thaps grows and
gdins complexity although it is continuomlyforced to reduce complexity. The
more po"ibilitie. a system has-think again of language a, the extraordinary
example that demonstrates this-the more selecti". each .ingle sentence and
th. le .. stereotypical spe<'ch is. Thi. can seen, fo, instance, when comparing
social strata. if one compares the somewhat stereotypical form of .peech of th.
lower strata- particularly in England-with tne more elaborate fOTm of lan-
guage in the higher strata. An elaborate language finds the right word in ewry
situation and i, often capable of expressing itself more appropriately, "I""ially
when th. structure is very elaborate and highly complicated, than when there
is only a restricted vocabulary at hand. This has 10 be grasped with the concept
of mu(ture. Herein lies the achi ..... ·ement of joining high stru(tural complexity
with opuational capability. Then you will also see why the shift from triyial to
nontrivial machines is imponant. Trivial machines dispose onlyof those ol""ra-
tions that are determined by the program and the input, whereas structurally
complex sy,tems can IhemseiV<"s effect the learning of how to match situations
and, at the .. me time, they can, if you wm, take their own thoughts or their
own communicational habits into account so that ' have a far
richer rel""rtoire of po ... ibilities for action. problem consist. in explain-
ing exactly this, and for this the concept of structutf---<lnd nol so much for
Ihe queslion of deciding helw"en subjectiYity or objectivity- i. Ihe imponant
A last point regarding Ihe question of why on. sl""aks of sdf-organiullion.
A sy".m can op<rate only with self· established slructure,. It (annot import
structures. This too needs to be explained. If you look at research on the acqui -
sili on of language, it is nearly impossible to understand how a child can learn
language so fast. Some of you will know that Noam Chomsky attempled to >oke
this probl.m wilh the postulate of natural and innate d .. p slructures, which.
how,,·er. could never be discowre<l empirically.' Presumably modem research
on communication would suppose that one learns language in communica-
tion itself. as one who i, called upon by 'I"'akers, if on. may.ay SCl---Sl"'akers
who simply suppose Ihal the one who is caUed upon understand. ",'en if th'1'
know that he d""s not )'''' understand. Through practice thu. arise, the habit
to di><ern .pecific noise, a.language and then to rel""3t 'pecific meaning>. This
explanation would at least not contradict the thesis that the structure (an be
established only the sptem it .. lf.
If one thinks otherwise, on. would have to imagine that som<"One who learns
how to sp<ak i, educated in a specifi( sequence. He d"". not begin 'P'aking him-
self, rather. it is dictated to him how h. is , upposed to sl""ak. Thu," howe"er, one
would face the difficulty of explaining the varieties of lingu;"tic development.
Research on   as well a, on writing and reading errors, has ShOWIl that
the te ndency to make mistakes varies greatly wilhin a giwn clas, of students. It
i, impo>sible to come up with a single didactics of reading or writing be<cause
the tendency to make errors differs from child to child. One reacts more on
phonetics, another one likes to shonen words and omit, a letter, so that the
individuality of the process of language learning and then of learning to read
and write i, extremely high, much hi gher than commonly supposed. In order
to be able to take this factor into account, the shift toward self-organization
in the pnx .... of learning is, I belie"... indisp< This i, not to "'Y 1hat an
observer cannot still find out if the word, that a child h.,learned are the ",me
as in Ihe dictionary or as other people   ~ Ihem. BUI one cannol explain this
a. an imponation of slructure., but only on Ihe ba.i. of siructural coupling of
'yslems to each olher and to lheir environment.
On Ih.l .... e1 of abslraclion of a g.neralth.ory. we still have only v.ry lilil.
knowledge about how .Iructural d.velopm.nt actually lahs place. I imagine
Ihat, in any case, it does nol function like Ihe making of a Ihingof which you
know the nece"ary componenl' and Ih.n pUi I hem logether. The peculiarity
of siructural formalion to consist in Ihat on. firsl has 10 repeat- I hat
... one has 10 recognize any gi"en situalion as the repelilion of another one.
If everything always completely n.w, one could n.wr l.arn anything.
and although, of course, .... erything i. alway, compleuly new---<lll of you
look diff ... ntloday lhan during the lasllecture. sit al diff.rentplac ... walch
diff.rently, sleep diff.rently, or "Tile diff"ently; if on. lak .. a con",etelook,
.... el"}· siluation is incomparable--lher ... Ihis phenomenon, which is hard to
de,cribe exactly. that. for instance. one recognizes faces. Knowing why il is
Ihat you recognize ",mebody or describing the on. whom you recognize is
significantly more difficult than Ihe rffognilion ilself. You know the sketch ..
of fac .. mad. from eyewimess accounts in newspapers Ihal result from such
d"criptions. bUI only wilh great efforl and Ih. hdp of compul ... , whereas
recognilion olhe.".,"ise normall)' functions quickly. In order to be al all capable
of repelition- and Ihi' is once more a circwar argument- we have 10 repeal
recognilion; thai i" w. ha,'e to be able 10 do Iwo Ihings; first, identiJ}' - lhal
... das>ically 'peaking. recognize essential f.atures or dues of idelllili.s---and.
,",ond, gen.ralize, in the seme thai we can again make use of Ihe identity in spile
of Ihe different nature of the ,ituation and sometim .. very significant di"imi-
lariti ... We are dealing first wilh a limitation or a condensation of something.
and. caused by Ihis, althe same time al", once more with a g.neralizalion, in
Ihe sense Ihal we rffogni'" the same people in complelely different cont.xts.
in completely different situalions, and often aft .. many years, or we are able
to reuse. in language, the sa me word. although we use them in different sen-
lences. on anoth .. day. in anolh .. mood. in Ihe morning instead of in Ihe
... ·ening, elc.
This Iheory seems to confirm Ihallh. continuous testing of identificalion
and generalization---<lr, 10 put it even more paradoxically, of specification and
g.neralizalioJl----.Can be Ih •• ffecli,·. propeny (Eig."kj,lmJg) only of a 'ystem
Ihat can be produced only in eilher the p"ychic or the communi,ation 'ysum.
If Ihi' communication syslem were nol functioning, we would n.ver learn
language. The communicnion s)'Slem provide. words or standardized gestures
Ihat are repealable and .1", usable in diff ... nt comexts. evon Ihough Ih .. e
are different eff<"<ts., siner a word denote, highl y meanings depending
on the sentence in which it is spoken. And thi' ambiyalen" or this paradox
of 'pecification and generalization seem, to me to be the rrason why this can
de"e!op only within a s)"teO\. Otherwise one would ha,'e to imagine that the
production of something coul d be learned the making of something fol -
lowinga .. cipe and, of course, byfoUowing directions.
To bring this pan to a condu,ion: Maturana has spoken of "structurally
determined   and this exp .. ssion in a cenain fashion has found its way
into the literature .• But if one takes the npression literally, this is only one-half
of the matter. The operations of a system presuppose mucture>: otherwise, one
would haye only a limited rq>enoire with a set of fixed structures. The larger
the number of .iructures. the greater the diye .. ity. and the more recognizable
is the system for itself as the determining factor of its own state and its oWll
operations, On the other hand, the op!""ite is also true. The mucture< in turn
can be formed only by its own operations. It i. a circular proces" The structures
can be fornled only by il> own operations because il> Owll >tructures in turn
determine the operation>. Thi. is ob"iou. for the biochemical .trucm .. of the
cell since the operations serve at the same time the purpose of the fonnation of
the program., here the enz}mes that are used b)' the cell to .. generate both the
structures and the operation •. In the 50Ciai s)"lem, if one thinks of language.
the same is the case. Language is po<sible only on the basi' of the operation of
spe<"<h; one would soon forget one's language if one could neYer speak and had
no op!"'nunity to communic3te---<lr rather not e"en learn it in the first place.
Com'ersel}', language is the condition of speaking. This circular relation presup-
poses as framing, as condition, the identity of spt'Cific sy"em. within whi ch this
circle is brought into operation or transformed into sequences, such that time
can di,soh'e the cirde. That i,. the relation is circular only if abstracted from
time. In reality, however. the .. a .. operations that establish with a minimum
of structural effon more complex .irunur .. , which, in turn, enable more
differentiated operations to take place.
By the way. this i. also the !",int of contact where considerations regarding
the theory of ... ·olution-which 1 left out in thi, l<"<ture seri.......,nter the dis-
cussion 1>e<:ause it would be the task of the theory of ,,'olution to explain why
single im'ention> such as the biochemistry of life or meaningful communica-
tion, the meaningful exchange of , ig"', d ... ·elop into highly complex system,
Dr a great "ariety of spKie<---that is. how an abundancr of structures can be
formed alt hough there is., respectively, only opt, type of operation and although
the whole thing i, set up in a circular way. The structures depend on operation<
because the operations depend on structure •. The whole thing, ho,,· ... ·er. has a
f!a"or of paradox only     the paradox is fonnulated in abma,tion from
time. wherea, r.ality mak •• of tim. and ,an thus develop and so unfold
the paradox.
The .e<ond pan of this ""tion regard. the concept called "autopoi ..   The
staning point of the considerations i. that what has ",id aoout structures
is also valid for the operations th.mse"· ... I have already touchrd on this since
otherwise I would ha"e bttn unabl. to depKt the conerpt of structure. that are
,ir,ularly interm'inrd with operations. Conwr",ly. the theory of autopoi .. is-I
will soon get bolCk to the meaning ofthi. expreMion- is the <ondition of the
possibilityof depicting structures in the way I haw just attempted. Autopoiesis
means. in Maturana', defini tion, that a system can gen .. ". its own operations
only through the n.twork of its own operations.' And the network of its own
operations is in turn generated through operations. In a certain way. this
formulation contains too much of. propo.ition, and therefore I haw attempted
to puU it apan. On the one hand. we are dealing with the th .. isof operational
do.ure. The .ystem generales   It not only produc .. it, own structures.
such as certain <ompute .. can dew lop programs for th.m",I", •. but it is also
autonomous on the I"'r! of operations. It cannot impon any operation from
the environment- no foreign thought enters my head. if it is taken seriously a.
J thought----<lnd no ,hemical process can be<ome communi"ui ... , If I spill ink
on my paper. it becom .. illegible. but this d"", not produce a new text. This
operational dosure is only a different formulat ion of the proposition that an
autopoietic 'ystem generates the operations that it needs to g.nerate operation.
through the network of it. own operations. Maturana, in his Chilean-Ameri,an
English .• peaks of "<omponents." This conc'1't lacks darity insofar as------but also
<overs a lot o..:ausr----it leaves open the qu.stion whether " mmponents" are
to be understood as the operations or 3.S the structures. For the biologist this
distinction mar Ie .. important since he is not dealing only with this fiution
on '\'ent-like operations. but also with chemical states and with the alterations
of chemi(aI states within the cell: thus he ,an still try to coin the elementary
concept as a state. albeit one of short duration. Howe".r. in the areas of the
throry of consciousness or the theory of communication, the e\'ent-,haracter
of element. that (annot be further dissoh'ed force, upon us. A sentence
is a sentence; it i, spoken wh.n it is .pok.n and no longer afte!;',ards and not
)'" before. A thought or a perc.ption, ",hen I ",e something, i. current in this
moment and no longer afterward. and not y.t before. so that the e\'ent ·,haract"
of the operations o..:om .. obvious. It i. my feeling that thi' leads to a stricter
distinction between structures and operation. 3nd to the dispen5Jtion of the
overarching concept of the "component." But th is remark is intended only a.
... ading direction for lexts by Maturan •. On principle. I do not "'" a decisi"e
differ. ncr.
BUI ... hy "autopo;"si,?" Maturana once told me how this np"""ion came 10
hi' mind, Inilially he had ... orked with circular structure, .... ilh Ihe concept of
• circular reproduction of the cdl , The word ' circular" is a common one that
doe, not creale further I .. minologicalproblem,. bUI for Maturana itlachd
preci,ion. Then a philosopher. on Ihe occasion of a dinner or some olher social
."'nt. gave him a lillie priv,'e lecture on Aristotle. The philosopher explained
to him the difference bet ... een "praxis" and "poi .. i,. " "Prax,," i, an action that
includes its purpose in itself as an action. AriSiolle herr meant the etho, of life
in Ih. poli., its "irtue and excellence, called "arete," whose importance is not
due to its contribution toward the neation of a good city but rather already
makes .. n .. on its own. Other eumpl ..... ould be swimminb'- <me does not
do it in ord .. to get som .... h .. e--<>r smoking. challing, or th. reflections in
univer.iti.s, which too arr actions sati'f)'ing as such ... ithout leading to any
results. The \'fry concept of already includ .. self-reference,  
was explained to '\ !aturana as w mething that produces wmething external to
itself-, a product. "Poiesis
also implies action; on. acts. however. not
becau .. the action itself is fun or virtuous. but becau .. one wants to produce
something, Maturana then found the bridge bet ... een the t ... o concepts and
spoke of "autopoi.,i •• " of a poi .. is as it, own I' roduct-and he intentionally
emphasized the notion of a   Autopr.xis: on th. other hand, would
be a point Ie" exp .. "ion becau .. it would only repeat ... hat is already meant
by "praxi •. " No, what is meant here is a 'Y'tem that is its own product. The
operation is the condition for the production of operations,
It i. also inter.sting that the concept of "poi.,is: of the making. of the
manufacturing. a. well .. ",en morr obviously the concept of "production:
ne" eT implies the total control o,'e, all causes. One can alway. control only.
parti.I"gment of cau>ality. If, for in".nc., )"Ou ... ant to cook an egg, then you
think of the nero for an electri, 5to". or that you somehow hJ\'e to make a
fire. but )"Ou do "otthink ofh.ving th. ability to chang. the air pre"ure or to
modify the composition of the <"gil in such a ... ay that it would cook by itself. I
do not know if such things would be technically possible. but there are a large
number of possible. normally presupposed cau .. , in prac ...... of production
that could be varied in order to come to new methods of production. The
concept of production contains the idea that one is not dealing. in the classi -
cal language .... ith "creatio," with the cr.ation of eveT)1hing that " "" ..... ry.
but only ... ith production- that is. with the bringing forth out of a context
of preexisting conditions that can be presupposed. This is not unimportant
in the discussion of aUiopoie,i, it is slaled time and again that humans,
for instance, are indispensable causes of communication, Then, how",'.r, one
could name other things a, well: blood circulat ion, a moder ... temperature,
the normal electromagneti,m of the .arth so that bon. fracture. heal again,
and other environm.ntal conditions for communication. N.ither th. concept
of operational dosure nor th. concept of autopoiesis denies thi •. Such a denial
would also not fit inlo theory. whi"h alw.J'" proceeds from a difference
between 'J"'tem and environment.
We are thus dealing with "poiesis" in a Greek or tradilional and strict sense
of production, the manufacturing of a product. combine<l with "auto," which
is to say that the 'J"'tem i. its own product. It is not only a "'I f-..... id.nt praxis.
In a cenain way, some elf",,, of the uncommon characte. of this expression.
or of th. conspicuous nature of thi' word that had not previou,ly been known.
arethatth. theary of autopoiesi, is both owrestimat..d and underestimated and
that there is a lot of critici,m that is not to the point. On the on. hand, there i.
the critici, m that it is a biologicaltheary that ,hould not be transferred to other
realms. This is understandable since in the realm of biology the infrastructure.
if one wants to say so, or the chemistryof autopoiesi, i, darifie<l. Normal biolo-
gists therefore ask what they gain in addition to what they already know when
they now also call this "autopoiesis." Th. bioch.mist.y of the coli is known.
so why then the rxpre"ion "autopoi .. is"!ln fact, the concept mad. it ea,ier
to for answe" to the qurstions: What i. operational and What
is the difference between production and Still. il is a coincidence
that it WdS biologists and neurobiologist" working on a terrain that had been
prepared in a ernain way, who inwnted this concept. "'aturana invented it.
Varela took it over. But this does not me.n that its usage in other realm' is
merely, in a strictly t",hnica]   an analogy. An analogy i, found.d either
on an ontological proposition thatth. world has an ..... ntial structure that
produces ,imilarities everywhere since it is meant this way by creation, or on
th.argum.nt that it is like this in the living realm, it also has to be lik.
thi, in th. psychological or .>OCial realm. But one does not need thi' argument.
If one defines th. concept in a sufficiently abmact way, it becomes dear that it
can also be u",d in other cases, if one succeeds in demonstrating this.
I h"'e had relatively long discussions with Maturana on this issue, and h.
always said that if one talked about the autopoiesisof communication, then one
would haw to be able to demonstrate it . One thus has to demonstrate that the
concept indee<l functions well in the realm of communication, so that on. can
say thai any panicular communicational act is possibl. only within the network
of communication. It cannot br concei" ed of as an "'em that happ'ns only
one •. II can al50 not be producm from , h. outsid., in a communication· free
context---a, a chemical art ifact, for in,tance-and then have communicati,'e
. ff<'ClS; insl<ad, it always ha, to be p,oducm by communication. I think that
this doe. not ereate great difficulties. On. c a n ~   quite ea,il)'- particularly if
one con.ider>th. lingui>tic tradition, Sam,ure. for instance, and what grewout
of IhiT-that communicalian proceeds along with ilS own differencrs and that
it has nothing to do with chemical or physical ph. nomena,
Oppo.ition a,ise, only when "'aturan. refuse. to call communication .) .. -
tem, ms. There i, a .trong emotional argument on his 'ide. He does
not want to lea\"e humans aside and lacks th. fl exibility with resl'<'<tto socio-
logical or lingui51ic issues that would aUow him 10 see how human. can again
br taken illio account. He doe, not want to give up the denoting of conerrle
human brings-who foml groups and ouch things-with the expression «social
syste""." Only the" Ii"" the difference.
In the sociological literature that " to integral< this concept into th.
theory of social system., thrre exi.t. the conception that it i, • bialogical meta-
phor. similar to the metaphor ofthe organi.m that is applim in an uncontrolled
manner and perhaps with conse,,"ati,,, intention. with r""pretto social systems.
Sociologist. are sen,ili"e to this point. However, this is a discu .. ion that w ~ 1
pha .. out in lime. I beli,,'e. II is already an indication oflinl. concern if 5Omeone
statrs that 50mething i. a mltapho,. If on. goes back to Aristotle', Po/ilicund
othr r tr.ditional texts, one can .. y that all conclplS are metaphors. EYerything
is 5Omehow generatm nwaphorically and itlhen be<comes independent, I"hni -
cally. 50 to speak. when .ppli ed in language wit h it> method, for condensing,
idlntifying, and enriching u,age p"',ibilities. If one has thi' m.aning of "meta-
phorical" in mind. Ihen nothing can be said against a metaphor. But this would
Ihen h .. 'e to be generalilm 50 that one had to "'T, for inst.nce, that Ihe concept
of "process" is metaphorical too. It corn .. into sociology from philosophy.
into philosophy from juridical terminology, inlO juridi cal terminology from
(h. mistry, or "i" yersa; I cannot trace this back 50 euctiy, The point is Ihat in
the end, ,,'erything is mrlaphorical.
Anothrr .id. of the discussian i, more important. I .Iso think that the con-
cel'l of autopoiesi, and the theory of autopoiel ic .ystem, are both under""ti-
matm .nd o"erestimatm. The radicalism of th is approach is underestimatm.
Th. radical i,m goes back to the Ihesis of opera tional druur • . The thesis of
operational dosure implirs a radical shift in epistemology, as wdl as in the
ontolo(;)' it presupposes. If one hJS a((eptm t his and rdat .. thr (oncept of
autopo;"i, to it- that is. if one trealS it as a further formulation of the thesi'
of optrational dosure-then it is dear that it is wnnectm to a break with the
epistemology of the ontological tradition that supposed that something from
the em'ironment enters into the one who cognizes and that the environment
is represented. mirrored. imitated. or .imulated within a cognizing system. r n
this .. spect the radicali.m of this innovation i. hard to underestimate.
On the other hand, i .. explanatory value is exceptionally small. That has to
Ix- particularly str"""d in the context of socioIO@'.Basically,onecanexplain
nothing with autopoiesis. With this con"''I' t, one gain. a different starting point
for more concrete analf"", for further these., or for a more complex appl i-
cation of .upplementary concep" , Already in biology it hold. true that the
difference between worm., humans, birds, and lish as a result of the one-time
invention of biochemistry cannot be explained on the of autopoie,i •. The
.. me i. the case with communication. Communication is a continuallyongo-
ing fact, a continually ongoing operation that reproduces itself. It i, not just
a one-time event, as when an animal makes a gesture to which other animal.
react by running wildly, crisscros,ing. and then, at some other time, for them.
a new orientation and imitation comes into being, When thisstate of one-time
",'ents i. O\'.rcome, communication, by mean. of separate .ignals or .igns,
presuppose. r<"<ourse to earlier sign usage and anticipation of possibilities of
conne<:tivity. Once this i. secured, society is thereby con.tituted, but it still ,an
be HOllento ... Zapote<:s, Americans, or any other cuiture, That this can vary in
time cannot be inferred, with respect to its otructur.1 development, from the
concept of .utopoi .. is, Thi' is to say that there is not really a great explanatory
,'alue. And this creates problems for a methodologically conscientious soci -
ologist: if one consider, that theories are supposed to p,m'ide instructions
for empirical research and thus structural prognose. , then to recognize theses
without an important erq>lanatory ,'alue, withom hypothesis formation. with-
out the initiation of an empirical apparatus as fundamental, TUns against the
grain of normal scientific teaching. In line with this consideration, the theory
of autopoiesi, i. a meta-theory, an approach that an,wers what-question. in
• pecnliar fashion: "What is life!" "What is consciousness!" or "What i5 the
social1" - "What is a social ,y"em independent of i .. particular features!" The
concept of autopoi"is answe" these what-questions, and thi' too i. a thought of
Maturana' s.
At the end of. long course on the evolution of life a ,tudent approached
Maturan. and said to him that he had understood everything but was still
wondering what it actually was that had ",,,h'ed. For tho time being, "'latnrana
had to give it a pass. A biologist normall y does not ask the qumion of what
life i •. And in sociology the question of what the social i. is not one that keep'
this discipline busy. In psychology as well, quest ion. in this form that a.k what
the soul is. what consciou,ne" i" are uncommon, Whal-que'lions lend to be
labooed, but the concepl of aUl opoiesis aim, at these questions,
We are dealing with. if you will. the refounda tion of a theory. But thi.means
at the same time thai the following efforts demand mallY more concept. than
'imply the word .utopoi.,;" Thi. concept provides lillIe information for our
work. Systems Iheory has to enrich itself on a more general lewl in order to work
"ith thi ' concepl, to make decisions. and to be able to separate phenomena. The
topic of structural coupling will become import ant in the nen lecture benuse
Maturana attempt. to explain th.t which he calls ",tructural drift" on the basi'
of different structural couplings: The structural d"'elopment of a or of
a of depend, on the , tructural coupling with its em'ironment to
whi ch it is nposed.
U,I me add two further points regarding the current di,cu>sion of the con-
cept of autopoiesis. I think it is important that one maintain the rigidity of
Ihe concepl, that one consequently say: A sy'tem i. either autopoiet;' or not
.utopoietic. It c.nnot be a little bit autopoietic. Regarding ". UIOS" it is dear
that the operation. of the '}'Stem are either procluced within the 'plem or that
Ihey are, in important respects, proYided by the environment- for instance.
by an imported program that a compuler work" with. He .. an either-or hold.
lrue, With respect to life this i, d •• r: one either Ii,.., or is dead. It is only for
seconds thai doctors are in doubt if one i, ,till ali ve or already dead. A woman
i, eilher pregnant or she is not pregnant, but she cannot be a litde bit pregnant .
This e""mple goes back to himself, ;ps;";",,, ""rim. This means that
the mncepl of .utopoi",i. i, not a concept that can be graduali zed. And thi'
in lurn mean. that the evolution of mmplex sy.tem, cannot be explained with
the mncept of out opaiesis. If one st ill tries thi., one get, to theories that say
that a system , lowly be<com .. more autopoietic. Initially it would be totaUy
dependent on its en"ironment and gradually it would gain autonomy. and then.
first, structures would be<:ome less dependent on the environment, a lillIe more
or Ie", and then the 'ystem would be<come more autopoirtic in its operation.
as well. There is su,h a tendency. Gunther Teubner in Florence made ' imilar
suggestions in order to be able to integrate con , iderations of evolutionary bi -
ology into the theory of autopaietic systems.' I n the meantime. I also be<came
acquainted wit h literature in the discipline of ""onomic, that gradualize, in a
certai n way the autopo;e,is or the autonomy of companies and arri ... , at such
a mncept a, "relative   It is maintained that a system would be
rel.tiYely autonomou, and that in certain respect' it would be independent
from its environment and in other respects dependent on it' environment .
In a ,ui,( understanding of the word autopoi",i •• however, it sa)" nothing
156 HIKLt.5
about a dependence on or independence from an en"ironment si nce
it i. a causa] queslion Ihat asks in wnich respects a 'y,tem i, dependent on the
environment or how Ihe em'ironment affect, t he 'ystem. And t his is, again, a
queslion that has to be add .. ""d to an obsen'er of Ihe ,y>!em.
In addition, one cannol assume as a principle the conslancy of Ihe sum Ihal
would ,tale Ihat a sysl em is the more independenl from t he environmenl the
les, dependent il i •. Many experience, indicale Ihal highlycoml'lex ,y,um, thai
are autonomOU'IO a high degree-if one can relalivize Ihis word- in
independence and 'pecific dependence al the same time. In modern sociely.
an economic syslem, a legal syslem, or a polilical syslem is independent 10.
high deg,ee, bUI il is 10 an f<jually high deg,ee dependent on Ihe em·ironment.
When Ihe economy doe, nOl tlourish. polilic.l difficulties arise. and if polilic.
a,e unable 10 provide cenain guarant..,s---for i nSlalKe by means of law----<lr
if politic, inurfere, loo sTrongly, Ihen Ihi' cre. l es problem, in Ihe economy.
We haw 10 diSlingu;sh---and this leads again back 10 Ihe t hesi' of operalional
dosu,e------between causal dependence/i ndependence, on Ihe one hand, and stlf-
generaled operalions on Ihe olher.
I am nOl even 50 ,ure m)',el f if Ihis is convincing in Ihe end. We.ll ha,'e,
,pecifically in European cuh ure, a strong conceplU.l lendency 10 conwrl every-
Ihing into causalily and Ihen, for insl.nce, 10 always understand such lerms as
"an operal ion generales an operation" or "produCTion" causally. This mak., il
difficult to conceive of operalional dosure as completely ..-parated from causal
Ihrori ... We alway' glide back 10 Ihe conception Ihallhe Ihesis of operational
dosure i, a specific t he,i. about lne internal causalily of .y"ems. In a cerTain
stnse Ihis is eYen Ihe It can be colwerted 10 causality. BUI on principle the
mailer ,hould be understood in such a way that t he condition of connectivity
is nOl a condition Ihal suffices 10 caust Ihe following ,tat •. Exactly Ihis i, the
Ihem. of Ihe conceplual field of slluclUral coupling.
Not ....
t. s.., von I'''''''t ... ·Wh .. Is Memory! "
2, Thud!.'!;<T, "Autopoir.i5. •
J. s.., Chotruky. A,p«" of Ih< l'lrrory  
4, s.., M.t u"n. anJ V",.I., ..tUM",;";' nmi Cog";rio,,,
5, s.., the defln;tion ;n M.tur.n. , "Autopo;e .... "
o. s.., Teubner, Rul1l ""'0l"';,,;><hN ",.,'Nt4 j3 fr" ..., . 1", the pr;nt.,] " .. >ion of
the Ji><:u"",n ;n T eubn .. and f"bbr.;o. 51"". Low. and uonomy.
7, s.., K;nch.nd Zu Knyph.oll><n, "Untemoh""", . 1. '.utopoi<t ;",h.' Sy".md"
SpJe<:" Is the Place
Tilt Laws of Form arid Social Systems
The single mo>1 ,triking characteristic of George S""ncer-Brown', LAw, ofFonli
is Ihe variety of misunderstandi ngs concerning its reception.' It, basic idea is
actually quite ea,y: "form' or "something" is identical to the difference it make,
{with anything eI",1 and ( thu,) eventually different from it5elf. All  
or "form" or "being" is explained as the residual of a more fundamental leyel of
opermion, (namely, the construction of difference), including the" calculu, of
indi cations explaining the v'I)' Law, of Forni. Due to its constructivist nature,
the calculu. has enjoyed admiration from a va riety of people. some of whom
are regarded of major importance in their res",,<t i,·. scienti fic disciplines. After
a meeting with S""ncer-Brown in 1965. the philosopher and logician Benrand
Ru,,,,11 congratulated the young and unknown math.matician for the power
and .implicity of this caleulus with its extraordinary notation. In 1969, shortly
after the publication of L>F', fi rst edition. the father of neocybernetics., Heinz
von FCK"rster. enthusiastically described it as a book that "should be in the hands
of aU young ""opk."' In the cybernetic tradition. by the way, wF". resonance i,
undimini.hed. The international journal CybrmeriHa",1   Knowing pub·
li,hed a Charles Sanders Peirce and Georg. S""ncer-Brown double issue in 1001,
there exist two extensive Website, with LoFm. t.rial and new Spencer· Brown
mathematical work (",e "S""ncer-Brown- related sources" in the nOles be·
low), and a revi",d English edit ion of LoF i. fort hcoming. One would conclude
that LoF is wry much ali,·. inde.d. But a. noted abow, appraisal for the cal ·
cul us is ceTtainly nO! univocal. There exist (some very advanced) criticisms of
the calculus. Some authOr> regard it a. misconstrued from its very beginning:
for Cull and Frank. the LAW\" of Form is no more than the FlaW\" of Fo"". The
greater bulk of di.appro,·ing commenU is, however, less than a spelled· out,
intricate .rgument. tn general, it aim, at the st.tus of LoFwithin the mathemati -
cal tradition and rejec" it as a mere variant of Boolean algebr •. 'imply using
a new nO!alion. Nil MOVtun sub wlr, 50 to speak. Whalewr be the ca",. LoF's
thinking, rspecially where it concern, ils far-reaching conslructi,'iSl implica·
lions, has dearly not yet been well rstablished. Spencer-Brown's (promising)
daim' nOlwith>tanding. Ihe context of his work. its nOlation. and its exotic
"(I("Jbulary need a greal deal of clarification.
For that very rea50n, Ihe adoption of the calcnlu, in contemporary soc10-
logicallh<""Ory cannot be an obvious cour",. And yet some sociologim-- mo>l
nOlably sociologists working in the sy>tem,· th<""Oreticallradilion of Nildas
luhmann- work with it ..... ifit were not only common knowledge, but as if
one had fully gra,ped Ihe tr:lnsformalion of Ihe deep omological structure il
induces."' This i, mosl certainly a reason for , urprise or doubl. Whal d""s il
mean ",hen concepts (a, "fornlS") are consistently formulaled as a distinclion?
In an e""mple. whal is the >en", in defining sr,tems Ih<""Ory a, the thwry of
the cliffe .. n .. bet"....,n   ~ ~ t e m and em'ironment? Next, i, luhmann's u'" of
paradox. another cenlral notion in LoF. more Ihan an inllaled postmoderni>l
rhetorical de"ice? Why d"", Luhmann insist on conslructing a circular epist. ·
mology (thai is. sociology as a way of soci<ly to picture it",lfin il",lf)! And why.
above all, d"", Lnhmann claim hi' Ih<""Ory to],., uni\'er",list )"1'1 nol solipsisl?
It i, deplorable that Ihe aforem.mioned reasonable doubts have generaled a of publicalion, harshly rejecting all Luhmannian Ih<""Ort·. Danilo Zolo,
for instance, has denounced Ihe Ih<""Ory a, avert· complicaled version of circular
.. asoning. G .. hard Wagner, on Ihe other hand, speci fically .lIacks Luhmann',
epistemological grounding in LoF. Those differentialisl claims, so Wagn ..
argues, are no more than Ihe foundaliona list or e""ntialist thinking 10 which
Luhmann himsdf claims to .. acl.'
In Ihe foUowing, I intend 10 tackie exactly these problem,. I will do so by
'ystematically di>cussing Ihe conslruction and argumentation of LoF (1) a, I
believe it hold, Ihe key 10 itself and to Ihe sociological claims of Nikla, Luh-
Illann, bUI also ( l ) b.-cau", such analysi, has bren conspicnously .b"'nI in Ihe
eXiSlenl !iteralure. A greal de.1 of attention will be paid to problem, associated
wilh Ihe circular construction of the calculu,. At all lim .. one should be a""ITe
of the difficulti .. or impossibilities of presenting circularity in a circular way:
at le.,t the medium of th. book or oral presentation demand, thai we pro-
c""d li nearly-thai is, from th. firsl 10 Ihe last page respectively, or from Ihe
opening 10 Ihe concluding remarks. As we shall ",e, Ihis limitalion (or, if one
wants, "paradox") contains Ihe 5Oluli on to a righlful understanding of LoF
and Luhmanni.n thwry con'lruction: "Reason. or the ratio of all we have
already known, is nOl lhe sam. that it shall be when we know mort" (William
Blake). J wiU stan by showing how LoF relales 10 the mathemalical lradilion
sPAC( 15 TH£ PlACl '59
and how Ihis refUi es a great part of existing N.xt, aft", a lreatm.nt of
the calcul uss nowion, J will show d ..... lopm.nt
of th. calculus oUi of the primary arilhmelic and primary alg.bra. EspeciaUy
the planar fou ndation of bolh allows us 10 understand why Ihe grounding
of a theory of (social ) ' in Spenc.r· Brown's calculus can hardly be an
ob"ious course of th.ory buildi ng. y. t the presentation of ",If-refer.nce in the
calculus notation. as Sp<ncer· Brown d.monstrates. is possible if and onl)" if
we are prepared to the medium in which we are writing. Self-refer.nce
defies presentation in plane 'pace yet can be presented in more
int ricate .... rsions ohpace. As we will ",e, Ihe lan.r corrodes our moS! profound
ontological presuppositions radicall)": on a hi gher 1 ..... 1, it is also responsible for
sharp   betw.en the systems theori .. of Talcott Par.lO'" and Nikla,
Luhmann. Last but not lea't, LoF's altered tr.atment of (and it. relation·
ship with lime) allow, an exploration of the pfeulia, .pist.mologies of both
Luhmann and Sp<ncer-Brown.
Starting Point: A Nonnumerical
Before the diKu"ion GIn comm.nce. J should draw the reader's attention to the
.xlr aordinary feonomy with which Spen,er· Brown f<juipped the calculu •. This
i, a common logical calculus founded on postulates. It is not ""en a
calculus. LoF must be studi.d as a book of mathematics, an   whose
seometry as )·et has no No numerical measure. ind""d!
What does that As Spencer-Brown rightfully und .. Kores, we find our·
seh'es here in the primiti'" a priori dim.nsion of all notation: two· dim.nsional
What we will be doing here, to put it bluntly, is drawing figures in sand
or on a piece of pap<'. Interestingly, thi' is what constitutes the for
a twentieth- or twenty-first -century public: the leve! of investigalion is as deep
as being "beyond the point of si mplicity where language ceases to act nonnally
as a for communicati on:' Our investigations will have to take place
at a predisc:ursi .... I"'·eI, where "something" wmes into being so to speak. ' This
is v.ry different from the l"'e! of number, and (enainly logic, is not so
much concerned with the world but with Ihe rath.r limit.d domain of our
(human) cognitiw "/Ilrion,hip with the world. "Logic i, not, and has n,,'er
been. a fundamental disc:ipline: Spen,er-Brown therefore argues.' And for
the same reason. po>tulJtes cannol exist here. Spencer· Brown depans from a
"ery basi, experience of dealing with Ih. world, with "t hings," "stuff. " This in
it",lf makes the calculu. a tm. rarity in lhe hi'tory of mathematical thought. J
concur with "on KibM and Matzka that Winge",'s Logisc:h-phUosophi«:hf
Abhandh",s (the Tmclatu, ), and in ",,'eral respects Charles Sanders Peirce'.
work, are the kind of inquiry dosest 10 the one pre"'nted in LoF.· In ,'iew of its
rigorous confinement to the very fundamentals of logical .ystem" LoF is mo51
acutely referred 10 as a prolOlogic: a re .. arch inlO ordinary arithmetic, rather
than ordinary algebra, or "an inquiry into the pre-discursive law. emerging
with the mo51 elementary position of ' something: The .. law. must ,ituated
al a level preceding the level of expression grasped by ,lassicallogic"" Thus,
LoF anti,ipate. and ward. off the major pan of its critics at il> most elementary
lewl. This i, imponant: when Kuroki Gen, a harsh critic of LoF, the
work as a reformulation of propositionallogi, or Boolean algebra, he is at least
neglecting the ,.lculu" construction and is po.,ibly ignorant of the meaning
of il> very starling point, " We will encounter the con"'quence. of this misun-
This said, we "n proceed to what Spencer-Brown grants us in order
to commence calculating khapter 1 in LoF}. And thai ;. not much. Spencer-
Brown is "ery cautious not to break with the objective of staning from the
wry beginning. He simply deli"er, • definition of form ;. perfect
continen,,") and two axioms contained in the de.finition:" (1) The law of calling
refers 10 the des"ip!i"e aspect of distinctions. Once (a delineated) ,omething
ha, been given a name (<CaU), recalling it does not alter it- "The value of a
"II made again is the , 'alue of the (.11." The law of <Crossing concerns the
injunctive or morr dearly operational aspect of distinctions. He .. a difference
"does a diff .. ence." One <Can onl)' in the form, or not- "The ,'alue of
a cto>sing made again is not the value of the crossing."
Yet its mathematied economy notwithstanding.let us not mistaken about
the LoF's intentions: "The theme of this book is thai a uni" .... com .. into
being when a 'I"'ce is ..... ered or taken ap.n. The skin of. li"ing org,lni.m cuI>
off an outside from an inside. So does the circumference of a cirde in a plane.
By tra,ing the way we repr ... nt such a ""era nee, we can begin 10 reconstruct,
with an acmracy .nd cowrage that appears almost uncanny, the basic fonns
underlying linguistic, mathem.ti"l, phpi,a] and biologi,.1 science, .nd <Can
begin to "'" how the familiar I."" of our own rxl"'rience follow ine10rabl)" from
the original act of ",wrance."" As will be dear, this passage contains LoF's
undeniably uni"ersali51ic (and t hus circular) aspirations: starling out from
an original act of distinguishing, LoF intends to describe il> con"'quences for
(1) the possibility of the world   as form), (1) the possibility of develop-
ing a (cogniti"e) relationship with t he world of tfl ings (luto",.dge or "cogn;ti"e
a, form), and (3) eventually, the possibility of describing the po.-
"bility of di",m'ering the .. possibilities {theldw, of form as the precondition of
tS TH£ 16.
all form, or uni,'''''' a. "what would ap!",ar if it could")." The last conc .. n.
the pure cirmlarity of the calculus: the Form a. an rxplanation of itself. It i. thi,
pan as well thai IN Heinz yon Foerster to link LoFwith Willgenstein's "problem
of Ihe world" - that i., the fact that the world ,,'e know i. constructe.! in order
to ..,e itself, while that appears 10 be a logical impossibility. "
forms T3k"n out 01 th. f orm
But it i. too soon to discm. the link with Wingemlein. Let m commence calcu-
lating, As ,""ould be expected from this basic inquiry, the caiculus----which stam
in chapler 1, subsequent to Ihe outlining ofthe conceplion of the primalfoml-
begins with a command of .urprising naIwte, .. Draw a distinction' "" "Draw a
line," "make a distinction," i. the primal injunction. As such, Luhmann would
say, one perform' the operation of "observation." One de-lineates something
and ,;"",/I"",,,,",,/y indicates one of .ide, separate.! by the distinction.
In order to rxpre .. the conceplion of the "fo,m" through a formal notation,
Spencer-Brown .mploys thel ' 1M "mark of distinction,' a topological nota-
tion. Atthi. stage of the calculus, th. mark 1 represent. a · cross" (descriptive)
that alsooughtto be laken to mean "eros.!" (injunctiv.), The mark is, in
sen .. , a       it combines both the a'pect' of plain denotation
and an injuncti,-e or instructive meaning 10 cross th. distinction and indicate
one ofth. separated . ides, .n)'loken be intende.! as an instruction to cross
the boundary of the ftrst di.tinction. u,tthe cr""sing be from the state indicated
onlhe inside of the token. let the crossing be to th. ,tate indicated by the 10-
ken:" Thi. is no more than stating obviOllS. we draw a distinction
(for example. a cirde), then the distinction cannot be negle<:te.!; it ha, affected
the .pace in which it is wrilten, and wt are. a.< such, "in" lhe form. Tht first
distinction literally " a first judgment, an   which determines ewrything
coming aft .. it. Once the distinction has been drawn, a "uniyerse" is there, and
the gates to return to a state of nothingness are dosro; that world i. lh. mere
"nameless origin ofhea,'en and eanh." the phenomenology of which is lost. "
TM notation 1 (alternatively ( ) or <<»} the reby expresse, th" topological
<15).",,,,1'1 as well. Simultaneou>.ly with tne drawing of a distinction. one of the
.ides is indicate.!. The concaye 'ide of Ih. mark thereby represent.lhe "inside"
of the form or the "marke.! "ate: The other .ide i. lhe outside; it i. a name-
Ie .. residual. an unmarked lefto, ... , from which Ihe marked sid. is delineate.! ,
We must " .... h .. that the drawing of the distinction and the indicalion
of of the separate.! sid .. are Iwo ,imultaneous "'P«" of on. ope,,!ion.
In Spencer-Brown' s terms: "We take a. give n the idea of distinction and the
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SPAn tS THf PLAn 163
repre .. nts the "formalization of autopoiesis." HOle e\'erything is aoout the
exe<:ution of rules relating to comtants ("sp<"Cific objects"). It is a first-order
leve! of ob"""","ion, a l .... ·d where there can be awareness only of th. aisten,e
of form. (2) The algebra. which could be constructed through the "theorem,
of connect;"n," is a different mailer. This truly is. calrol", Ink", oW ofthr
cal",I,,,, a level where the forms d .... ·doped in the arithmetic are obj«t of other
form, at a higher 1 .... ·<1 (in turn bound b), the rules ofthe arithmetid). It is aoout
arrangements (and hence indication and disri"g,,;,/,IIIg) of arithmetic form,
(dl>rIMcriomj. In a .. n .... it is the 'y,temic l .... ·e!. Esposito explains: 'The algebra
formalizes a 'pecific tJ,!", of aUiopoi .. is (and thus r<"quires the validit), of al l
arithmetic formulae): the autopoi .. i, of. sy,tem, th. operations of which are
OO",,·ation,. y,t. it remain, a bet that its operations (including th, operation,
of oo .. " .. tion) can onl), be OO""'ed by.n external observer. This contains an
openness which implie, and " 'entually requi .es the integration of first order
OOse" .. tions with ob ... rvations of higher orde ... ""
Y el how,,'" tempting Esposito'. metaphorical use andlor explanation of
the differentl,,'el, may be (and I am ernainly not "'ying Esposito', remark..
are ,ntirely wrongl ), it is malhematicaliy unwund: autopoi.,i, is an issue in
neither the primary arithmetic nor the primary algebra. What we are doing
here is stili drawing distinctions in the plane, discoYering how they rel.te. how
they mal' cancel each other out .
    1: Laws of Form and So<iai
The reader " i ll understand that this leads 10 fun ner doubts: how is the notion of
"form" in the calculus of indications to be linked to a theory of ,ocial system,1
By no meam ,houl d the cakuiu, of indications be understood a, • "brand"
of 'y'te"" theory. I repeat: the calculus i, best viewed as a p,ow/ogic; it " .. ,
primarily wrillen in reaction 10 .orne assumptions held in logic. And being.
proto-logic, it was nOi even stamped a, • logical ,alculus., but a. a ",,,thmw,;cal
;"1'';')"' Another difference. howeYer, between the Spencer-Brownian calculus
and Luhmann's system, theorr is that the former mainly "'pr .... nt' fin ite fonn.
(as the calculus demand,. they exist as a finite number of ero,,,,,I, whereas weial
systems by "rfi,,;rioM hold out the pro'pe<:t of ;MjiM;ry. They have ne""r been
set in mOlion "at a certain point in time," as .uch a point would presuppose
an earlier communication to which they coul d connect, and I'ice I'I'rsa, the),
don't break off at a cenain point, as ,uch a point would hold out the prospe<:t
of continuation. In Spencer-Brown', calculus, potentially infinite forms are
mentioned only where the calculus has been taken"w far as to forget it ."" An
auempled coupling of LoF and Ih. Iheory of """,ial s)'Stem, should therefor.
come a, a surprise.
lei us lake a look at how an apparent comradiction contains Ihe key to
ils 5Olulion. First of all, how do we define a ,yslem? A ,yslem exisls when
Iher. i. 10melhing capable of identifying a spe<"ific operation as belonging 10
itself- Ihal is, when Ihere is 10mething capable of discriminaling thai opera·
lion from operat;"ns thai do not belong 10 itself (wilh anemion 10 Ihe sh..,r
laulology of s)'Slrmic operations). A system Ihen uses the producls of pre<:eding
s)"Slrmic operation. for the performanceof new and differem operat;"ns. again
identified as belonging 10 the ')'Siem. not to its environmem. Syslems thus
necfMarily carry an image of whallh.)" are not. although in 3 trul)" ambigu·
ous way. This operational mode is designale<! as self-reference. Self· reference
expres .. s the unity Ihe syslem creales for ilself. II indicales Ihal a ')'Slrm refe ...
to ilself in all its operations: "'ere are s)"slems Ihat can deYeiop a relalionship
wilh Ihem .. lv .. and can distinguish Ihis relatiomhip from relationships wilh
Ihe environment.""
This conceptualization of self-reference in the IrfillS of the LoF does not
seem a self-explanatory course. After all, it would come 10 mean that form,.
distinctions (for example, system/environmenl ), dewlop a relalionship with
Ihem .. "· ... although self-comacl is implied as being an impo>sibility in Ihe
definition of the "primal form. " Once more, I siress Ihallhe operation(.) of
distinguishing and indicating should be sludie<! as a 'ingle operation. And
once more. I musl .mph.,ize that the indication is Ihe one and only mOlive
of the distinclion. Taken logether, doe. thi. not mean Ihat Ih. distinction is
emplo)"ed simply in order 10 be forgotten in the indication!'" Consequently.
if Ihe whole range of the dislinction i, in itself the residual of an observalion,
how can .. If-reference pmsibly be realized? h nol .. If-reference an impossibilily,
.. it impli .. the dislinction '. capabilil)' of referring- I hal is. indicaling- il .. lf
in itself and . mploying earlier indications for I he produclion of new indica·
lions in Ihe (same) form! Is self-reference nol excluded in Ihe very definit ion
of the primal form? In brief: is .. If· reference nol inhibite<! becau .. of the fact
Ihat dislinctions, differences, "make a difference"?
Reentry of the form into form
And yet: is Ihi' really lrue? Do all dislinctions make a difference! In some
obviously neglecte<! bUI crucial passages of the     10 the cakulus,
Spencer-Brown reminds us of Ihe use of covert com'entions in mathemalics:
we h3\'e agreed to 50me rules wilhout being consciously aware of Ihe fact we
SPAn IS TH£ PlAn ,65
did so." [n beginning of calculus, and for that sake in this e.say, the
reader has, for instance, assumed that the distinctions were drawn in a rim!"
a of for or the surface of t he earth. Ai; we know. distinc·
tion, drawn in a plane do ind .. d build a distinction. But the use of. diffe .. nt
mathematical medium mak"" thing. a lot more complicated, to the point that
s,""ming[y o!)\"ious facts arr, in fact, not self-e,'ident at all. If, at outset, we
had confined ourselves to writing on a toru, (a "doughnut "), for instance, the
distinction wo"ld Mf hm ... WN,tj""fd dj,tjnctioll.
dearly. our unconscious choice to write in a ptane. on a pie«" of
has made the real difference. If we are only willing to work with a different
medium, with a different conceptiou of the 'pac"" in which the distinctions
are drawn. it may very well produce a wholly different arithmetic. algebra.
and logic. Such wiUingness would, mor,"",'er. not be wit hout a cause. A. we
explained abow, we do in fact assume the existence offonns (that is, system.)
that are thorough I)' se[f-referential. that thus demand a different topological
treat ment (as they defy representation in the limiting terms of. plane surface
or ewn Euclidean space). During his (areer as a civil engineer for British Rai[ -
ways, Grorge Spencer-Brown and his mysterious brother, D. r. Spencer-Brown,
had developed sp<"<ial -purpose comput er circuits that all
characteristics of self-referential npressions. the prohibition of their use in
conventional logic .nd mathematics notwithstanding.'" For
the question is thus a purely mathematical one. His interest. lie Wilh .howing
the ""Udjty of imaginary ,"alu"" (for eumple • .J-t), the uS/' of which ha, been
common in. for example, dedromagnetic thoof}' , As they can be used me.n-
ingfully for the solution of equations that cannot be soh'ed otherwise, we must
accept "i maginary" as a "third" "'t'"£ory independent from {'I true (tautology.
x = x) and (2) (contradiction: x = -x). For Luhmann, the problem i,
to d.scribt sdf-referentially operating socia! systems. consi"ing of operations
that take their own re.ults as a base for furt her op"rations. The .. are form, that
"in-form" themse!>· ...
[n the m.thematics of LoF (,hapIOr 11), the following solution for our prob-
lem i. proposed: let us concei,·. of "space" in a different.   way- that
is, spa", as a relation between elements." [f we .ble to abandon th. idea of
space as a Euclidran • container" (that is. as something "in whi(h' things
are positioned). it is indeed possible to conceive of .. If-reference as form, turn-
ing up in their 0 .. .., form! ' Back to the calcul us: Spencer-Bro,," ins ists that we
must therefore all ow some way of coptlact between the separated .id"" of the
distinction written in the plane ,urface. In order to show the "If-reference of
• form/distinction. the distinction must. quite literall y, be urnl",mi""I, let us
166 Mt CHAH SCHtlTl
therefore dig holes. tunnels, under the ,urface in which the distinction ap",a"
and "corrupt" (from Latin cor-rtl"'i"'rf, to break together ) the ero"." That
'pace is a torus. If considered operationall y, distinctions written on a toru, can
,ubwn (turn under J their boundarie., traYeI through the toru,. and reenter the
'pace they distinguish. turning up in their own forms. thus capable of develop-
ing some kind of contact with themselves,"
Clearly. such self-referential form cannot ht'decid&! (from Latin de-wi",.
"to cut   in the plane. The marked 51Jte cannot be dearly distinguished from
the unmarked state anymore. leading to "indeterminacy. " The form is neither
marked nor unmarked. II is.n imaginary value. flipping between marked and
unmarked, thanks to the employment of ri",.," Howe .... '. this doe, not predude
its existence: "The value [of self-referential form. I being indeterminate in space.
may be caU&! imaginary in relation with the form. Nevenhele" ... it is real in
relation with time and can, in relation with itself. I>«ome determinate in space,
and thus real in the form"'" Self-referentially operating s)"stems should thus ht'
understood J> the oprmtiorUlr d'fferl'1lcebetween themseh'es and their environ-
ment. a difference that is made through some", n of self-referential oscillating
between th. two sides of the distinction (that is, system and em'ironment ), By
mean, of self-reference, the environment ·out there" can be observed J5 ht'ing
drawn topologicall y into the "inside" of the 'y>lem (compare the inside and
outside of a M6bius ring). This is the meaning of reentry: th. two sides of the
distinction are reinserted into one of its pam.
S",ncer-Brown repe'lS the notational ramifications of such sub\'ersion: "In
a si mple subvened expression of this kind, neith .. of the ... pans are, strictly
,,,,aking, eros,.s. since they repre,.nt. in a sense. the same boundary. It is
conwnient, nevenheless. to refer to them sep ... tel)", and for this purpose we
call each separate. , . part of any exp""ion a marker. Thu. a cro" isa marker.
but a marker ne&! not ht' a cross. · .. The distinction could thus al", be said to
h.,'e been alienat&! from its original inten! or motiw (that is, indicati ng one
separated sid.), and this by Yalue of being processed within the form (system).
in order to safeguard the difference between itself and other distinctions 0"""
ri", •. The aforementioned notational arrangement does, how,,'er, ha"e in-
triguing consequences for the form', being. Th. fXcursion through the tunnel
of the torus and the con""luent time employ&! to return into itself make th.
,.If-referential form peculiarly look as shifting between what it i, indicating
("cro"n and what it uses to make indicat;"ns (" marker"). The self-referential
form is flippery:"1 am the link between myself and observing myself" (Heinz
,'on Foerster J. In the parl.nce of ontology (d. infra): self-referent;al form
is both identical to and from it,.lf,"
sPAc( 15 TH£ PlAc( ,67
Laws af farm as Ontolo!IY
The mathematical visualizalion of self-ref .. enc .. in mind, it may be instructive
10 ,emnsider an imporlant critique on Luhmann' , notion of "syslem: Intor-
.. tingly, ""me aUlhors (most prominently represented by Gerhard Wagner)
seemingly assume Ihal Luhmann ha, proposed 10 simply replace a Ihing's or
system's ii/emiry by means of a differencr--namely, the difference between
system and environment- just like Ihat, Ob"iousl)', such a shift ha, not been the
",,,,e, Rather, whal is lacking in th. critiqueis du ... ttention 10 Ihe growlh of Ihe
calculus', injunctions in the direction of the   of self-reference, Whereas
Luhmann himself has, on sever.1 o<, .. ions, referred to systems Iheory as an
in"ilation 10 draw a distinclion between 'yslem and environment, that dislinc-
tion is an obvious advance on Ihe topological ramifications prominent only in
Ihe mncluding chapters of Ihe cakulus. Clearlr. Wagner mistakenly views the
difference between system and environment as the jPlmiei/i{Hr offspring of the
primal construction. -Draw a his argument has nol "followed"
up to Ih. coda, let alone self-reference having bttn   He is still
in the plaMe. Consequently, he is myopi, mncerning Ihe operalional aspect of
self· reference. Hence. the difference between 'rstem and environment cannot
be e',alualed in its full Asa malteroffact. it must ultimalelymme
to be seen as a ralher tri"ial reiteration of foundationalism: "The fact is Ihal, by
the way in which Luhmann understands foundalional differen", he practically
commits his position 10 identity. "" In such a mistaken view system and en\"iron-
ment can easily and erroneously come to be conceiwd of in term, of a polar
opposition. quite simil.r to Hegel's notion of negativity." As my remarks ha,'e
hopefully made dear, Ihe elaborale nOlion of a system as a self-referential form
can be realized only in the more advanced chap"TS of LoF-namely, chapteTS
II and I,- in whi,h there is mad. mention oflhe reentry.
The 'ystem' , ,elf-reference can Ihus only be defined as the act of self-
reference. as self-referential performan ... And Ihis. as we have seen, demand,
a quite intricate lopological arrangement. The system must retlea. in Ihe formal
sen .. , ilself and its em'ironmenl as a mrollary of itself in all of ils
Jt can "",ure the connectivity of its operations only by eslablishing itself as an
imaginary value and by employing the lime of the lunnd to de .... lop a relalion
with itself. In ShOM, imaginary spa", i, Ih. only topologirul )l0..,ibilily for a
'ystem 10 be systemic. For Ihal reawn. Ihe differen", betwe.n the 'ystem and
the en"ironment <Cannol be an essentialisl difference, let alon. a new ..... ion
of foundationalist thought: "II does nol cUi all of reality imo tw(} raMS: here
'ptem. Ihere en,·ironment. Its either/or is nol an ab",]ule: it penains only in
relation to the .ystem, though objecti",ly. It is correlative to t he op'ration of
OOst .. ,.,tion, which introduces this distinction (a> well a. OIh.,,) into  
This operational aspect apparently pro"ides the due to the numerom misun-
derstandings about Luhmann' . ontological premi .. ,. And time aft .. time. the
peculiar position of the e""ironment has Men at the core of the problem. Yet if
you are aware of the topological qualities ofthetoru., you can ... ilyunderstand
that position. The environment is not so much oul ./""" as jn Ike,,", it .imply
emerges out of the reentry of the distinction into itself. The environment is
co",rrurlfd by the 'yslem; it exists only with the form of the system- that is, if
there is a can be employe<! in order 10 reenter the system'. own
inner .pac •. "
This forrn ·"'ntere<! conceplualization ha, d.arly parte<! with more estab-
li.he<! distinctions .uch as ,ubfrCl ,.."us object, man versus world, or .. ifwrsu.
liifferrncc. In LoF and .ystem. theory. e\'ef}1hing, all emergent reality, is dis-
cusse<! as the corollary of a construed difference. So whal are Ihe ramifications
of self- reference for our ·ontology of the   GentTalto our discussion
herr is the connection between op<"raU""a/i,m and form. SY'''mic op'rations.
we haw messed, presuppose self-contact, and, vice ,'ersa, .. If-contact implies
systemic "in-formation." Clearly, Ihe form i, on its own: it i, a sel f-sufficient
and stlf-engendering reality. Actually. the definition of Ihe primal form, stalM
at the very outset of th. calculus of indications, had already made this dear:
"Distinction is perfect continence."" But at thi' ,tage of the calculus. what
we ha,'e already known is not the same as what we know now (d. the citalion
of William Blake in Ihe introduction). At this point we realize that "form"
is the symbol of the world 0. the uni ....... : all foml is part and product of a
self-engendering .. If-ref,rential whole, " of which ,,'en th. first form must be
embedde<! in a further form (most fundamentally the difference between draw-
ing a distinction and deciding nollo do so)." Thi' formal introversion ( from
Latin jnl,o-'''''Iere, turning inside), this wry self-reference, refutes .... ntiali'm.
Aft .. all, we may take il that the uni,'e .... undoubledly is itself- that i, .
indistinct from itself- we must a«eptthe fact Ihal. as self- reference, il i, ind""d
false, or distinct, to itstlf: "We may take it thaI the world undoubtedly i. itstlf
(i.e. is indistinct from itstlf ). but, in any attempt to see itstlf as an object, it
must, equally undoubtedly, act so as to make itself distinct from, and therefore
false to, itstlf. In Ihis condition it will always partially elude its.elf."'" The world
is nol ' whal there is."" Yet this foundationalist crisis it. 1. Kun Gl\del's Iheorem
of inmmpleteness should not be seen as a reason for despair. Self-referential
paradox, meaning indeterminacy, must be con.truM ... the price systems and
the world pay for Ihe possibility of operations, acti,·ity. and '}'Stemic evolution.
For contemporary 'y,tem, paradox i, nOi seen as an accident to be
avoided. but rather as the creative presupposition of the whole construction,
Paradox "is nOlthe fatal end, the definili," f.i lure of all ontological constitu-
tion, On the contrary . .. it is the staning point of. history,. movemem of
system-constitut ion. fuU of risksand bifurcations. Paradoxes do not make things
impo>sible. but r.ther possible.""
The French phil osopher Je.n Clam has therefore spe<Culated that it may
be .nalytically fruitful to employ a difference betw .. n "l"'pJ",mic and ngetic
par.doxes, paradoxes occurring in logical expressions (in the plane!) and para-
doxes imminent in operations or systemic space respe<Ctivdy. In the apophantic
sense, paradoxes do indeed block observation: they do defy determinacy and
may therefore be judged destructi ... or corrupt a<:cording to the foundationalist
tradition. But th. excursion through the tunnel has shm", that there is. merit
in subversion: what apparently blocked cogni tion ha, become an operalion.1
loophole. a compelli ngch.nce for Systems must operate in or-
derto achi e .. e the fictit ious unity that coul d nO! be achif\'ed by the ontologi -
cally more elegant way of self-identity and integrity. Sy>!ems must operate in
order to b}l'ass situations of a >!TUctural st.ndstill. And semant icali y, systems
mu" operate in order to coYer up the df\'a5lating consequences of manifest
inconsistency and contingency: deparadoxicalioution. ' Operating is always the
introduction of a component that avoids the stand-' tili, because it broadens
the 'pace of possibilities. The operating of systems is nothing else than this
handling of components which create more possibilities and condensing them
into a self-continent but not-finalizable ergetic whole:"
    2: Luhmann .. u, Parsons
In retrospe<Ct, one will agree that the ever -growing promi nence of paradox in
Luhmann's thinki ng has changed the concept of social sy>!em in wars 50 fun -
damental that a sociologist such as Talcott Parsons could not ha" e imagined.
At no point. we must concUT. ,an a system be described in terms of in" arLam
structural chara<leri>lio;. Confronted with the utter impos>ibility of unity and
consi"ency. in f3"or of indeterminacy and contingency. systems emerge as
mere sequence> of ongoing operations, They are no more than a momentary
deri"ati,'e of p"s>ing operations. characteriZfd by a self-reinforcing rest le .. n ....
Admittedly, Luhmann has n"'fT been a commined stTUcturali>l. In Social Sy' -
1m,,, he rqt'CIed sTructuralism on the grounds That "STructuraliSTs haw n"'fT
been abl e to show how a strucTUre can produce an ,,'ent. "" Hi, Theory of social
'ptems has therefore subordinated sTructure to fun<lion and has , hifted The
focus from slructure 10 event, the network of which produces the unity of
the system, in Ihe eYent only. BUI Ihrough lime, the concept of autopoiesi"
which exp""'" the self· production of Ihe network, has undergone some major
changes as well. Whereas the nOlion had originally been delined in do", refer-
ence 10 Ih. way it was designed by Humberlo Malurana, Luhmann forsook Ihis
definition almost completely in the '990'.   the notion would be full y
rewrillen in the terminology of the calculus of indications: ·'Autopoiesi. is thus
not to be conceived a. the produ,tion of a peculiar "Ge>lalt.' Crucial i. rather
the formation of a diffe .. n" between sy.tem and em·ironment."" Autopoi .. ",
the reader will understand, i. nothing but the form of a ' ystem's basal unrest,
the abbrl'\'iated expression of the .ystem'. concern with gelling around its
nonidentity, The strong self-referential. and hence reflexi"e. bias of the noti on
>hows what that means. Enclosing itselfin it",lf- that is, endo",d in it",lf- the
fonn incessantly, its own internal boundary, thereby adding to its level
of complexity, but n",'er able to become identic.lto itself.-'"
This latter point may be helpful in undew"nding Luhmann' . panicular
brand of functionalist methodology. Already back in '970, h. had criticized
Parsoni.n functionalism on the ground. of a>suming a semi -identity of fUllc-
lim, and c,,,,,,,liry." Clearly, Ihe notion of causality, implying necessity and
absoluteness, is at odd. with a theory that comug .. around contingency- in
politics, in law, in Kience, in intimacy, in an- in brief, modernity!" Luhmann
therefore return. to Kin!;'ley DaYi" critique offunctional method and manages
to turn this critique inside out: the rejection of funct ionali.m is-in a typically
functionalist guise-------employed as a ..,Iution for ..,me conceptual deficiencies
of the functionalist method. First, the relation.hip between function and c.u-
sality is asymmetrized: causality must be classified as one exceptional instance
of function, Second, functionali.m is outlined as a method for comp",i"s the
potential of .ystemic arrangements aimed at maintenance of the system's
unity, rather than for indicating the -systematic" relation>hip. between function
and achievement. Luhmannian functionali,m is a functionali.", of dlff"ence
and as such is more than a mere rhetorical upgrading or fine -tuning of • well -
known functionalist repenoire. After all , the queM for historically contingent
and factually ..ariable functional equivalencies effecti,·ely a"oids the structural
determinat ion of theoretical judgment." With respe<:t to content, attention
,hift. from the functional arrangement to what could be called the con,truc-
lion of prob/wlS. And again we encounter self-reference here, Rejecting a social
.. tem 's (structural) pennan",.,. and subscribing to the idea of system, a, forms
that react to their self-generated complexity, functional"t method also
adequate attention to the way in which systemic problem solutions (functional
SPAC[ IS TH[ PlAn '71
arrangements) "trans-form: expand the 'y,tem' s operational <latm. and thu,
remter Ihe space at a new leveL AI t hat leve!, the problem 10 which
the functional arrangem.nt initially reacted may h.-'e disappeared or may be in a different, I"'"ibly more accrued, manner. Such are the meth-
odological consequences of self-conditioning .df-reference.
Laws at farm a. an Autological Constru<t
Finally, I promised a clarification of Ihe m<tapo,ition of Ih. notion of form far
beyond the scope of its h.uristi,"1 appl"'",ion. After all, after indicating th. pos -
,ibilityof self- referential form, (" r"'ntr)'," chapter 11 ), LoF off." a perspeclive
on the position of the mlculus ("Re-entf}': chapter 111. The calculus.. as a part
of the univ."", mu>t be on'l"'"ible form. disti nguishing the form, it has be.n
describing a, form, making a difference. The very calculus of indications has
been a   through whi<:h Spencer- Brown and the reader haw traveled
to arriw at the form of the first distinction, which is now .... n a, legitimized,
ju,tified by all canons. theorems.. demonstrations. and proofs that followed it.
The "first distinction" was d.liberate and historically conlingem. Y<t all that
followed was its necessary consequence: "The whole account of our deli bera-
tions is an ""count of how Ithe first distinction I may appear. in th.light of the
"arious >tates of mind whi<:h we put ul"'n OUISe!.·es.- For thai very 'filson, the
clari fication of th,law. go,'erning this universe mu,t be considered a trivial
mailer: · Coming aclOM itthu, again, in the light of whal we had to do to render
it acceptable, w. see that our journey was.. in its preconception. unnen"ssary,
allhough its formal course. once w. had set l1pon it, wa, in"'itable: " Th.
paradoxical combination of coP!IiM!!mCJ (of the first di>ti"ction) and Ml"Ccssiry
(of its consequences) deIllOltstr"" in what fundamental respect the epistemol -
ogy of LoF differs from cI .... ,i<:.I.pistemologi.s.'" The calculus of indications..
ultimately a funClion of itself, has establi,hed itself a, an imaginary value, It
can be continued endlessly. as Spencer-Brown does not fail to indicate." On
the one hand, its inclination toward the imaginary mak .. the calculus correlate
with what it seek, to describe: liu reality or · world," the calculu, is · form· that
,,,,ks to get a hold of ilself but does not manage to do so. On th. other hand. its
""n,truai" i,m implies the loss of • privileged position of (scientific)
knowledge. At this I"'int il is dear how LoF relates to Wingemtein's problem
of th. world (d. supra). Self-refer.nce has come }60 degrees. It is nol merely at
the root of any possible uni,'e"". It also dominat es and determines ob"'I'\'at;"ns
of the un iv. "" and eyentually omeIVa I ions of t h<-laws of f om, gOYern ing both.
This should affe<:t scientific OOseI'\"ations and scientific method considerably. It
172 Mt CHAEl SCHtl TZ
implies a shill from a world oflhings to a world of observations. Thi. is not just
a world of the real: "There i •• tendency, ,sJ'Kially todd}", to regard existener
a. the source of reality, and thus a central concept. BUI a. soon a. it i. formally
eumined. exist. nee i ... en to be highly peripheral. and as such, .sp.cially cor-
rupt (in the formal .. nse) and vulnerabl • .'." II is rath.r a world of the possible
and an ob ..... ·." intention to draw distinctions. Our undemanding of the
world thus cannot reside in som. form of di",overy of its p .. sent appearance
(out th ... , beyond ob .. rvation) but collie, from ",membering tile com'rmion,
Ii> in order Ii> briMg it Thetask of the math.matician, whose inter-
est lies with notational elegance and density, may hence lie with bringing th.
world back to it' conYention. and abandoning all surplu, arrang.m.nts. As i,
well known, Spencer-Brown's conclusion, . ... ntually bord .. on the my'tical:
experience th. world clearly, w. must abandon exi,tence to truth. truth to
indication, indication to form, and form to void.-
For NikJas Luhmann, however, wh.n presentingatheoryof social '
the challenge is different. Hi, task lies not with abandoning, but rath .. with
expanding. CI.arly indebted to LoF, Luhmann adopted the notion of form
and tile corollary norion of medi"",. He has typically used a theory of the 1.1t ..
to ident ify types of m. dium in the social'pher. and speculate about re'pe<:tiw topologies.. their transformatiw capabilities. their role in soci ·
etal Mulution, and so on. II is .. v.aling that form/medium came to permeate
the whol. of Luhmann's theory of society, ev.ntually , tretching beyond th.
original main distinction of ,ystem and em·ironm.llI. bringing about ob"iou.
probl.m, of theory construction." Epi.t. mologically, furthermore, Spencer-
Brown's mathematical conclusions on reentry are expres" d as the autology of
the distinction between form and medium: form/medium i, a distinction, thus
form. "' II, too, must reneet the tri\';ality of it' lIeces<ity . . 4., .. If-ref .. "",tially
organiua ,nrory. Luilmmm', ')"Ste"" tilrory repre>l'm, irs OW" bou"dary, a",i it,
IimHation .. Th. acclaimed univ.rsality of the theory can therefore never entail
solipsism. If properly obse ... ·.d. th. ldw, of form relate (rdativize) 1he theory'.
universality to the notation .mployed, thereby ontlining the distinction as its
own limi1a1ion. Conscious of its social formulation in the social .pher. of soci-
ety. the theory of social 'y,tem. is simply on. possible way of presenting society
in society (air   drr It i, only one possible form in th.
aU-encompa .. ing medium of meaning. Thi.lead, to an interesting question.
If th. medium of meaning is ind.ed the ult imate medium of psychic and social
sptems----that is. if meaning is "the medium ofit""lf " - then what is its "form,"
the distinction through which it can Ix- .xpr .... d? I only on. answer:
the m.dium of m.aning must be identical to the between form and
s PACf ts THf PLACf 173
mrdium and the of that distinction into itstlf. Its consequent indecid·
ability isth, symbol of our dealing the world. It e"Presses the fact that all
our gel 0 hold of th. world are doomed to frustration. '" Me:ming"'
our phmo",,,,,oIogy of this world can only lit panial, "' th, difference between
form/medium can onl)" lit .ctualizrd as 3 foml. In mathematical terms: meaning
is a lambda· domain occupird by communication. that, by acting on them .. I,·"
(= being a function ofthem .. lves), produce new communication> in the same
domain that can in turn act on th.m .. l"esand further expand the domain.
It will lit dear to the reader that such far ·goingoccupalion with self-ref, rence
must change our view of Spencer· Brown', "form" and Kikla. Luhmann' , . ys-
t,m/environment and form/medium. Their fuoction Ii .. most crrtainly not with
the des"iption of th, "objects" in their r"pective domains and their respecti,'e
"'qualiti .. " a. qualities that are eternall)" true (that is, ob .. rver-independent).
Rather. the .. If-referential construction of the uniYer .. and especiall)" the me-
dium of meaning demand, the con.truction of theoretical notions capable of
reHening themselves a. an object (= communication) in their domains. ex-
panding the domain', horizon bqond their own capabilit)" of observing that
expansion. Seen in the terminology of topology, form and form/ medium are
self-Iocatorsor fixed point>; they are the sole ' poin"" on the map of math.nla! -
ics and >oeialthcory Ihal coincid, with th, corresponding point in the terrain
their disciplines are trying to map. Such points contain their own explanation
(that is. their allo-referencr and self-reference coincide J. The)" are the pinnacle
of self-ref .. ence in domain, that are self-referentially built. Therefore. both
LoF and the theory of >oeial , }"Stems are not only in the metaphorical sense
a formulation of Quine. paradox. When applied to themselves, they ")"ield a
falsehood" (absolute because contingent J. Yet, therefore. just as Quin,', para-
dox, they can lit absolute theori .... which are al,o theories ofthemselves. lroni -
call)". the latter also constitutes absolute weakn .... I feel. When Nikla,
Luhmann. for instance, descrillt. the epistemological premise, of hi. gigantic
theory of >oeiety as an invitation to rethink existing >oeialtheory and to for-
mulate theories that ha,-e themseh' •• compared to hi. project, thi. must lit
seen a. a (rh<1orical1) illustration of hi' epistemological self-confidence, no
more and no I.". After all, it i. in the nature of meta-theories not to toler-
ate epistemologies of. brand. Exactly their meta-nalure blocks the
  of going beyond them- .. lf-referencr i, infinit)" in finite guise. as
Kauffman also knows." It should be clear thai different theories and different
."i"emologies haye to put to themsel"esthe requirement of contingency
and outology in order to qual if}' .",andida,", for comparison after all. Whether
this paradox has detrim.ntal consequences i. a <luestion that must lit left open
he ... It is only 10 hop" that , as William Blake has said, "Reason, or Ih. r'lio
of all we have already known, i, nol Ih. saille thai il ,hali be when w. know
lAw> of Porn, Web poge m.intai n..J by Dick Shoup; h.ltpJlwww,L.".,.,fform.ol);,
lA....- off'o'm Web pog< m.intained by Thorn., \\'olf: hltp:/lwww.l,,,,.-of-form.not .
A "j? Tl ",0:1 ' (W. don', need Sp<ncer-lI,own): J.p.n ... page
main,.inN by S,k..i l '. i,o I!'\J Hi 'k indud .. link. .o cri.i<.1 rom"", by Kuroki
G.n .'I.I"';!:;: hltp:ll.hough, . "". jpll uhm.nnl "'10. b.h 'ml.
I. j wiU .. f.d",,,,,[,,rto 'ho wholeofSp<nc .. -lImwn', U,W, oJfurm .. LoF, oI1specihc
cita,ion .. nO'N •• LoF .,i,h corresponding p.go number" .... 'ilin from Sp<ncer-
IImwn, U'", oj I'orm, '''';'' (rp. 1994).
2. Von 1-'''''''1<r, "u,w, of f 'om,." V.niol ' eprin!> of ,hi" rev;'w can be roUM on ,he
ba<k pag. of •• ",,01 ..Ji,ion. of u,w> of limtr; • Ge,m.n , .. n.l.,ion "'u included
in Bot.cker, X.I!;;il ,k. Form.
J . a.m, "Sy"om', Sole Con"i,"..,,': 69.
4. See W' gner, "Th. End of Luhm.nn', Soc,,1 S)","m. Theory", lolo, "FunC!ion,
M •• ning, Compkxity," . nd ' The Epis,emological Sta'u,:
5. foF, XL On ma,hema,in and ', Sp<ncer-llrown h .... KI: i., in
f:le', .bou. 'I"'c< .nd r.Jatioru;hi .... A numbor com .. in'o m.,hem,uic> only ...
"",»ure of 'poce ,"dio, ""'iomhiI". And ,he earli"" m.,hl.'JD"ic> i, no •• bou.
numoo. Th. ""'" funmm<n,,1 ... I.,ion"' ip> in mathema,i< .. the mos',,1
L.w, of m.,hematic .. ore no. numorical. Iklo!e.n ma,hom"i", i. prior.o numerical
m.,h"",.,i< •. Numeric'" mathem.>'Oc, GIn bo <on"ru<'N ou, of I\oobn mathem.>' -
i< • ., • 'peciol disciplin<. I\ool" n ma,hem"in i. import.n!, 'ho word
in it. origi",,1 .. me: .,.h., i. import.n. ;, wh., i. i mponN. Th. mo" import.", i ..
,herefore. tho inner, what;' mo" in,id • . Ilecau .. !Iu. i. imported fanh..-. Iklole.n
"""hematin i. mo ... importa n' th.n num<ri cal<motic, ,imply in the !«hni-
n l ""5< of 'he word 'importan • .' II i. in"",r, prior '0, nume,ical ma,hom,ni<>---i.
;, d",pcr." Spencer-llrown ot the Ameri<. n Univer>i'y     (AU.,) conference,
'97.1' h' 'p,II ...... w.1a w",/form.orY .uml .... iom .html.
6. [oF,xxviii.
,. CI.m, "5)'>l<m', Sole Coru;'i, uet!': M-69.
8. LoF, ,i.
9. V'I);' von Ki bed, nd 11.1., ..... , und GmndgNmko: A wry good il -
"I>I,..ion of ,h. I. ner i, a ",rie> of .ni<l .. publi <h..J in •• peci.1 double i .. uo of
Cj """r<licr.,", H um"n K ""wi"g (2001), ""b,itl«l P<i,a "",I Sp<'JI"t'r-8rowrt-H is"")'
.1U1 SY"'W<> ;" Cyb<""",",ria. V.nicul.,ly impon.n, ,,·hen i! co,"", '0 ,he direct
IS TH£ '75
","'ion.hip bel ... n • notalion .nd Ih. L".,t ojPorm i. Eng>lro m, "i'r«u"",,-,
10 u,,,,, of Poml ,"
10. CI.m, "$),>'''''''' Sok Combl,.."t,· 6&-69; compare [of, 96 •• nd K.uffm.nn: "Self-
Ref.,e""e . nd Re<:u,-,il'< Fotm •• " "Th. M"h."", . icoof(.1 .. ne. S,nde" r.irr<,· .nd
-On Ih< Cy\>ern<liC! of fi,oJ lloin ... •
n. Kuroki co""mel.d an ex«",;,', Web ,ite .rguin); .goin .. SI"'IK<"f-Brown (in 1.1"-
"""'), http:f I ...... w, loh<>k u ,K.j Pl'li>l7 nu roki!SBJi nJ ex, hlrnl# .bot ract.
, :>. A. one ..... upon d""'t <XOImin.tion, bo.h Ih< hi ..... of «uling.nd In. 1.1'1 of c",,»ing
ref", to Ih. "dOl>u"," Ot -<· of Ih< form. On Ih. m •• ning of continence
.nd the imromn« of it.> <piot<rnology, "'" V"!:o' von Kib«! .nd M.I,h, "Mo'ive
"nd GrunJg<d.nke,· 6o. lkyond doubl, il con .. in. hin" to the form of ",]f-
reference, explained in ch.pte" " .nd 12, "A mar k or .ign intend«l ., an indKalot
i. >df-ref.rential" (Kauffm. nn. -Self-Referen<. and Rccunive 53).
lJ. LoP, xx;".
q . Ibid .. "iii,
IS. Wittgen>!";n. Lofi>cn-phil"",p!""h. Ablla",/I""x, 9 J.B). In ' he T md",,,,, OIig-
!'.in. Funklion hnn d"um nich. ihl ";, A,sument ""in, .la. FunktKm-
".ichen "" .. i" do> Orbild .. in .. Argumen" <nlh.1t unJ .. 'Kh nKht ",Ib>!
enthiilton hnn, Nehmen wir niimlich .n. die fun k,;on F(b ) konnte ihr eigOIl""
Argum.nt ..nn. d.nn g;;""" .I,,><i nen Satz: « F(F( fx) )» und in die .. m rnO ... n
die .uSe .. Funklion I' unJ die ;nnere Funktion F v<.-.chioJ ,'n. lWeutung.", h.-
""n, d<nn die innere die Form q>(f.). die ouScro die Form 'I' (q>{fx )). C.m. in-
.. m i>1 <kn beid.n funktio""" nut d., Buch .. abe «f». Jer . 0Cr allein nichts
      Oie> wird ",foil kLIl, ,..enn ",irst ... <d"( F(u))» ",h",i""n «(3qo):
= I' u». (Wittgen ... in, L"lIIseh-pioilo>opio,,,hr Ablu",dlulIg, J..I)
16. LoP, t-J.
17. Refer""c .. 10 Peirce', mdlh<matic> are not ",cident.J h<re: .. 'm in not.tion. II><
re",mWalK<ofSI"'IKer-Brov.-n', form with Pcirc.·, not.t;on (for<XOImple. the " ign
of ill. lion" ) i . ",i king. Excellent rdereIK" her. at e Engstrom. ' Precut"''' to U.M
of fOrm,· .nd Kauffmann. "The of (;h.rl", So,md."" Peirce."
,S. LoP, 5.
Sl""'cer-Brown ""'" this ob"ure p ..... g. from Ihe fit .. chapler of t h< T "o-I, -king
•• the ol"'ning quote for toE
'0, LoP, I.
" . LoP,). Obviouslyo"" mU" not n«: .... ,ily .gree wilh this conc<ption. bUI if so, one
pi .... on<><lf out>iJe t ne .. le ulu. (and ,",'e are d.,rlr not ,.,-ill ing to do >0 h<re). In
the .. leul U1, one;' expea«i '0 obey th< ;nj u IK,ioo, of math<m.tical com mu nic. tion
anJ '0 ob<y o"ly Ih,," ""d ,!,"'" ollly. - In genor.I, wio"1 " 1101 ulkowd j, forb"lAm"
(Ibid, <mph .... i. in origin,]) .
'--'-. On how Lof m.>y . id our und.",Lmding of .Jgeb.-., ... M ego i "'. "LJi!ro""'Y
Ilound,..,. Algebra."
lJ. LoF. xxi-uiii. S7ff.
'4. H ttp, /Iv.WV'o'." ",,,,,/!. ml.
lj. Ibtd.
26. E'po>it!}, "Ein zweiwertiger nicht-oeIb.IStiindigor Kalkul: 99-'00.
'7. Ibid., 104--1.
,S. LoF, 63. Therd!}re, the "f,rene< '0 infinite form, emerges •• equivalent to t hoe
f.mou. phra", of,] in the T,/U,a/u< "What we cannot .peu about we mu" p ...
",'or in >.ilene." (lI'ittgen"ein, j",,,.-falu, l j,j. It i, the p>T1 "in"
the colculu.,hot embodi •• ",f",ene< to the "outside" of th o •. Con5«juencly,
i, h.u on "'l ui,-.kn1 probkm.ti e " .. "': it i. the paradox sa)ing that the .. Of" 'hi>tg>
.oout which ,."ni"gcan be ",i,e Con;id<" in this nyrd, II<rtmnd ",m.rl.
on 970f the "What h .. i .. tio n i. ' he f' e! that, ,fter .U. Witt-
!;"n"cin man,!;,,' to .. y' good de.! about ",hat cannot be 'hu •• to
the >keptical ,eader th.t p"1>ibly there may be "'me loophok through the hierarchy
of longLtag<"l. or by !Orne other .. it" (p,ef.ce to Wittgenstein, T'mcfal"' logic<>-
xxil .
'9. Luhmann. Social Sr5lm", J' .
)0. With attention to ,he lingu;,tK difficult ... of d<""ibing the unity and difference of
distinction onJ indication ..... Schilt,.nd V",,,,hmegen, "Spence,-Hrown,
onJ Autology: 65- ]0.
]'. [oF. S5 .
J'. "The f>et that men ha"" f", centu,i .. u..,J. pl.",,, .urf,.,. fo, ",riting mem. trut,
.. thi, po,nt in the text, both .ut nor anJ re.J ... ", .. .Jr to he conned Into the •• -
.urn ption of • pia"" writing RI rf.c< without qLle>t "m. But. like on y other .»u ",ption.
i! ;, not unqu,",'ional>le, ,"d the foc' tru' wo can qu .. tion it her. me.n. thot wo
can i, .b.-where. In fad .,e haw found a common but hith .... o unspoken
. "umpt ion underlying ",hat i. ""ittrn in mathomatic>. no .. bly a ....
Mor<'O\"". it ;, now ovidont thot if a different ,url"e i. "",d, ",ha, i. ",ritten on it,
. Ith<>ugh id<ntic.1 in marki ng, may be not ident ical in mean ins" (LoF, 86).
}J. LoF. '19. Fo, examp1 .. of Sponc<'f-Brown'. engin<'<fing wo,k, .... http://www.",w,
ofform.<>'Ii f" t ""to/index. ht mi.
34. "M..Jirn oJ. '17. Thi. i, not .. particularly "ex-
otic" ,'enture: - Oiell<>tirnmung yon ltiumon oufgrund d", IM.tionen zwi",hon
oot immcten !-:kmenten i>t nichlS ungowiihnlich ... : Man   .um iki.pi<1
undhtte • uf Grundlag" de, [ntfem u ngrn ,,,,;..:hen den einzelnen Orton. !);e,..
I.""n .ich abe, . ur ,..,,,,,hi<deno Wei>en m,,,,,,,n: dio Entf<mung
<kr Luftlinie in Kilom .. "", e.,;ibt .nder Di, oJ. die Kilom;,te,zahl. die m.n
mit clem . MoI,,;',en h'tte . ... We,," mil" M" Raum ol"Tar.mal <kji"im,
..-;,,/ die am ih", g=hull< L"fik ""1.,- U",,,,jnJe" jhibk, (11J--1S: my .mph.,;,).
Jj. from the di:ICu.uon below. 'ho ... <k, will und<,. .. nd why "turning up" ;, , he ac-
eu" t. te,m here.
}<i. LoF. S9ff" ,<>off. -To corrupt: to "t o d ... troy the integrity of" (from
Luin i'l-1m'g<r<, "untouch..J:
IS TH£ '77
37. Thi. 1"""logic.J ",Iulion .... m' 10 rcler to. f.mou. J Ktum: "Th" medium i, the
m.,.,.ge"   And indeed.lhere "xi>1 ", me .. temp" to inlerp ....
LoF in •   w.y. ",ch •• l<hmann. "0.., Medium d", Fonn."
j S. Th" «odor mu" «.Ii'" thot lim< h .. lh", <",,,,d., 0 con""!u"n« of, Iype of
>poc<--n. m<ly. 'pKe in which form can «L. .. I" ibelf .nd • .., ,uch. chang. (ch.nge the m .... ur. of Ii"",). Tim. i> thus nothing progi • ....,. Neilher i. 'pK" "The
r,rn ".te. or . p.a. i. m"..,urod by 0 di!l in<lion b.-I"...,n " ...... The« i. no ""e
for. Ji!linClion 10 he mode in. If. di!l inClion muld b. then il ",ould « .. t"
• 'pK<. 1"h.1 i. why it 'pr"" in 0 di"in<:t worlJ Ih.l th .. e i. 'I"ce. Sl"c< i> only
.n 'pp<,,,n« . It i> wh.t ,,'ould he if th",. could he • di"inc!ion" (hllp:/I>I'ww
• t.. w",lfo rm.orgl. u m/ >e>.ion •. hl m! J,
J9. LoF. 6>.
40. lbid, .6S,
4'. Schillz .nd V"'s<hr.oeg<n. 'Sp<nc<r-Brown. Luhm.nn , nd AUlolog.'." e.p. 651f. K.y
lunge exploin. ,hi • • • t he medium (of ,h. 'oru.) "bkxking" di ... ct ",If-ref .... nc.
("Modi.n .Is S<lbs,,,,f,, ... nzun .. rbr«b.,,, ") .
...,. W'g""r, "1'he End ofL"hm,mn', Soc;"'! S),>'em. Theory: W' .
43.lbid .• 3W. 199ff.
4-1. Luhmann. Sociitl '78.
45. Thi. i. nol 'o"y ,h .. t h<re i>. comrlete ,nd p<rf."<1..,ui"""'n« lwt",oen 'h< .y"em
.nd Ih" "",'iron",,,nl; "th.,. the", i, •'.J .. ymm .. ry. 10 'h" oJ, .. n"g' of
th" ')'>tem. A •• , .. uit of ,hi. ba.K ",ymm<'ry. ,he ""vironment don nol con .. in
di"inction" il l' not , riee. "fi nfonnat . ",.LJ i.tinction •• ,. found only m, ,),>"'m.
S),!"'m. ob"""..,. whik Ib..,.e i. no,hing .. If-ref",,,nl;"! or . y"<rnic to the .nviron-
46, Kauffman. ""he Malhom.tic. of 0,",,1 ... So.nde", I'"irce," 1.17.
47. LoF. I, As V.rga ,'on KibM .nd Matzh ""'''. con,inence ,""ould be in'erpretod on
th" of i""'ymologic.ol rdation.hip 10 Ih" La,in "cont in" ... : "to hold log",h",:
Thu •• "di"inchon i> 1""f.,<1 continen«" m.'" d"., nOl only that Ihe or igin of lhe
t wo .ide. i> 10 beconl>ine<! in t h< di,tinc'ion, but .bo I.nd prima rily) 'hot 'he form
h.., n" anchori ng in any ou!>ide .... Iily or fou ndation; il i, the con"''' of it><lf. il i.
"clo." ... :
; S. It i, impon.1n1 10 ",,,, .. , imiLtrili ... bctw«n LoF . n<! A L.mlxl. i •• d ." of obj<"<l> Ih .. c. n oct on on" anoth"r to form new ob;.c" of the
sam" kind. It 'hu. pr'''urpo'''' ,,-,f-rcle«n«or ,",<uni.i,y. In "Th" Mdlh<m""" of
Charle. So.nd"" Peirce." Kauffman pro.ide. mo", ob,iou. du .. on 'h< r«u"i,"ity
of the uni"r", .nd n,.,hem"ico in , comparison of SI"'ocer-Bmwn', ide., with
t h< ide .. of Chari", Sanden Poi"e (,mff.).
49. I .urmi .. thi> i. 'he meaning . nd function of th" my"",iou, "un,...ri" "n cm .. :
. I,.,.,<ly inu-ooucod in 'he colrul,,', "'rr beginning: "Suppo>< , ny, ' [ 'pKej
to be .urroundeJ by on unwritten cm,,," (LoF. r).
50. Ibid, . >0<;,
S>. Quine. "On What Ther" I.:
52, aam. "Di. Grundpor...Joxie de< R""h .. und ih,o Au,raltung: 'J3.
5l, Ibid .. 'J5,
54. Luhm.nn. "Th. Au'opoirn. of Social Sy>t<m.: '74' .... n ,,"ell Luhmann. Social
55. Luhm.nn. J);, C..nIKlulft 'lLr C."II","ajt. 66.
506. Comp>« Clam. "Die Grundp>,adox;' de. R",h .. und il". Au,ralt ung," ',;/i ,
57, Luhmann. "l' unk1ion und K.u>ali'it, "
58. Luhm.nn. Ob",mltion, on M"'/(fnily • .j.\-;;L
59. Luhmann. Social S,.,-lm", 52.
60. LoF. 6S.
6,. Ibid .. 106.
62. !-·o .. compori>on wilh ".dilionol <pi"""'oiog;. .....   "Luhmann' , Theory
6J. Lof. 6S,
64. .. 101.
65. Ibid. lh;. i .. I am .fraid. one of ,he ma in "'=n> why LoF doe> h .. , • • POO' ""'''P-
,ion. Among oth ...... Kurek; Gon pe''''" ''''' ' h< ... umooI1 m)'''i<oj natO,. of LoF
(espe<: .. Uy it> numorM, .nd it! cult ".tU, wi,h lit. p')'chedel", g.n.fO-
,ion of the ,<>60;1 "" • ",,,,,, n to ignore it< in>.ignto. I\eyond doubt. Spencer-H,m,,"
i> to • l..,.g.   r<>pOn.ibl. for funh<, i>ou'ing l.oF from. broader .. adorn",
publ ", •• nd that i. d<plorolJl •.
66. llraun •• Form "",/ ,\j,ai"m,
67. Thi,I .. J. '0 ,he "I"'''';''" why Spen«,-Hrown .1<><> not .mp",y a .imil .. ,'iew ..
fonn a. t h< diff.fOlK. bet"''''''' it..,]f and the m..dium in ,",'hi,h ;, i. wrinen. Peter
fuch. h •• ugu..d , h .. LoF .I .... no' n<e<J lit. notion of"modium" a, ;t> field of
i, math.m"K, • .od •• ,uch wi,hout heuri>ticol a.pira' ion •. As ..
m " >.ide .. ,ion. on Lof" >how. I am not '" .ure this i. ,heco .... Speocor-Bro",n m:lk ..
mention of'h< notion of m..Jium in .. Ie .. , two P'=g'" ( .... Schiltz. "Form and
M..J ium "). Funh<nno ... h. obvioudy employs the not ion of m..J ium in ord .. '0
be .ble to .how ,h. po»ibility of ,,,If-ref,,,ent ,,,1 form. (,he medium of 'PKO
''Or''"' ,1.0 m..J;um of Ih. toruJl ). y", I beli ...... he .I"" not pronounc. ;, in vie,.,.
of hi> "'mO'l' dtt""t ion for notot ion.oi matt<", "Returning, to the ;.1 .. of
oxi"enti.1 pr«ul>Or ..... ..., ,hat if thei r form a, endogenous to the I ...
primitiv. "met ur. ident ifiro. in pr ... nt-doy<, wi,h .. >.l i'y. " .. canno' """pe
'h< inf.",oc< t ha, wI.., i, commonly r.,;ardod •• r ... 1 comi,,,. in it> very
"",rely of ,ok.n. or upr""ion," ( [oF, '04) , In principle. [of" can .uffice with it!
topologKoi I>O'aI;on • ., long., we ar< .w.,. of;t> ;n";CK;., (for <"""'pl •• the
di!t inction bet"...",n no,,,,, ,nd markers ;n H).
6S. Comp>," LoF.1<df.
6<;1. K.uffman. "1'he MalhemalK' of Char", S:mJe" Pe i" . : \<>5,
Improvisation: Form and Event
A SpetICL'T·Browtliml Calmlillian
As they sav in rronco, I'op",'!' vienun mongeon', .nd f,om ou, own
.. p."ienco we mlSht In p.",dy . ... n,   vienun parlont,
Heinrich yon Klei"" essay ·On the G""dual Fabrication of Thoughts While
Speaking." from t80.l---{;, explains r1l f"l,s<lm the bq;innings of Europe's modern
political and social order as resulting from an improvised speech, ' [n his decla-
ration ofiune 1.1, /789, which IN to the fall of the French monarchy, Mirabrau,
Kleist daims, did not yet know what he would say when he first opened hi'
mouth. Afier humane bq;innings, he did not haw ft the faintest preS(ience of
the bayonet thruST wilh which he would conclude: Only in the proces, of his
speech did a "fresh source of stupendous ideas lopen1 up to him," thought. thai
became more and more concrete untillhey led jI,·lirabeau to leap to the upin_
nade of audacity," asking for the dissolution of Ihe legi,lature. Kleist condude,
that "per hap', after all, il was only Ihe twitch of an upper lip, or Ihe ambiguous
fingfting of a wrist frill, that precipital<d the ovenhrow of the old order in
France. " After a period of di",rientalion, Ih. spt't'Ch takes an unplanned and
unexpected direclion, developing ("",mingiy unannouncN 10 Ihe author) it,
own dynamics, increasingiy lending subSTance and necessily to itself, until the
speech fina lly original and now nec<ssary proposition. Kleis!'s poetic
accounl of Mirabeau 's spt't'Ch ,uggest, that ",mdhing new and authentic (here
the act" that presumably changes no Ie .. than lhe political order of the
West) cannot be intendNi orOlherwi", deri\'ed from a conS(iou< or premedi -
tated act but ralher emrrge' from contingencie. and improvisation.
The preferrnce for impro\'isation o\'er premeditation constitute, an ae'thetic
principle both for Kleist', lite""ry ",ritings, whe .. embattled protagoni'ts con-
sistently find them .. h,., surrounded by contingencies thai force ad hoc action,'
and for his aesthetic writings. In "A Painter'. Letter to His Son: to mention
another example, the paimer explain. that in art , 'he most .ubl ime effect can-
not be achieved through planning and premeditation but "may deri,'e from the
lowest and m",t unlikely "au .. ,"' For Kleist, beaut}" an, and grace, but aI",
happine ... love, and justic<-----in fact, any authen tic event- _dud .. int<ntional-
ity: it cannot be planned, fore.een, or expected, In the ab .. nce of intention. as
a structuring principle, Kleist pre .. nt, contingent and material elements---the
twitch of an upper lip, the ambivalent play with mffs, the mere fact that a person
ha, to 'peak, etc. and the ability to (re-lact ,pontanrously-a, ne<:e""ry for
the emergence of ",nlething new and authentic. Moreover, only contingencies
and improvisation "an produ<Cr evem, that are ofhistori(J] signi fi cance Dr that
create a 'ingular, aesthetic experien",.'
Klei.t'. aestheti", rai .. the question of artistic creati" ity- how art i, cre-
ated- and .uSS .. t that the creative proc .. s dud ... ,,'en preclude., in some
es,ential way a conscious invoh'ement by the artist. That art ."ceed, the con-
",iou, reach of the artist i, not   a new daim. Sin" anc;"nt tim .. ,
arti, t, haye described the creati"e a(( a, something tm",,:ending their contro!'
a .. ntiment still shared by many an i>!s today. At the wry least, one percei ... "
a. Hans-Georg Gadamer put it, a • qualitative leap between planning and mak-
ing,on the one hand, and successful complotion on the other. "' In premodern
times, thi' phenomenon wa, .dd ..... d under the heading of artistic «inspira-
tion" or   High.r powers, God{.) or the Mu .. " were thought
to author the creative proc .... In the srcond half of the eighteenth cemury,
tho .. "higher powers" .re increa,ingly internalized. They become pan of the
creati"e genius'. special abilit ies. Rath.r than being percei"ed "' an empty Ye,-
.. I. the art ist-geniu, of the late eighteenth century becomes the model for th.
exceptional a .ubject that is able to mediate between the conscious
. nd the5uocomcious (dri .... , feelins', nature) or supraconsciou. (epiphanies,
di"ine in.igh .. , inspimtion) .phere>. Kleist', aesthetics take aim at the .. late-
eighteenth-century figuration, of the creatiy. act, .. emingly challenging the
  establi.hed around the artist-genius a. an ."ceptional subjret. Insisting
on contingencies, accident .. and improvisation, Kleist chaUenges in particular
the anthropocentric "iewpoint of the .. expI.m,tionsof creativity. Kleist', work;
highli ght a fundamental heterogeneit)' between artist and artwork, suggesting
that the artist merely participates in the creation process through the pmctice of
improYisation rather than authoring the artwork or expre"ing him- or her .. lf
in it in any predetermined manner ,
Th ... brief notes on Kleist' .... thetic. will ... rve as a reference .nd point of
departure for the following nwcybernetic considerations on improYi<ation.
[)rawing on contempomry 'ystem, theo,)' and on Georg. Spen(fr-Brown' ,
form cakulus, J will first r,Offt on the sociohistorica! context leading to re-
definitions of artistic that encourage improvisation in mod.rn art:
second, I will explore the pt"rformance aspt"C1 of improvisation and ilS po-
tential effect on the obserwr. Regarding the fi rst point, neocybernetic dis -
course suggest, alternative descriptions of the art-creJling process that can
account for the emphasis put on cont ingency w. find in Kleist and in much of
twentieth-century art. Thi' impli .. a ba,ic change in pe"'pt'{\ive, that welookat
the artwork's creation nOi primarily from the vantage of the aniSlic indi"idual
bUi as ",meth i ng ,t ru ct ur.d by the particular codes of the art 'yste m, codes that
secure the reproduction and social autonomy of the system of art.
Since the late eighteenth century, the incorporation of contingent elements
and dffisions has become a ,tructurally n.« .... ry part of the creati,·. proc.".
Klei'" s fascination with accidents, coincidences, chance, and other twists offate
teO",ts this modern im'olwment of art with conting.ncy, an invol ... ment that
" ill al l bUi define art in th. tw.ntieth century. This llWans in turn th.t the experi -
ments of Dada, fmuri,m, or expre .. ioni,m, and later the .pomaneity celebrated
in beat literatur., music, action painting, theater, or performance art, must be
"iewe<! as a long-term con""luenc. of .... thetic codes that became dominant in
the lat. eighteenth century. The acceptance of improvisation
and comingency in art .1", signal, a new focus on the performance .speo of
art, on th. production of effects ow, the communication of meaning.' In th.
second pan of this essay I will draw specifically on Spencer -Brown's concept of
form and explore its potential to account for the effffto of impro,'isation as per-
formance. Thi' r"luires a cogniti'" approoch, moving from questions of system
differentiation to the question of 'ystem irritation. Performe<! improvisation, as
performance art in general, highlights the mutual "irritability" of psychic and
social ', A, • funoional .quivalent of Ian guage, art, coordinat ing cogni -
tion and communication, is couple<! to the psychic s)·stem and can lead the
psychic sptem to reproduce it, .Iements (thoughts, f""lings, ob",,,"tions, etc. )
in a particular, intensified manner.' The qu .. t;"n I want to address is how ouch
i ntens ificatio ns are cr.ated, Why is art. a nd in particular why are performance art
and perform.d improvisations, experienced as   How do artworks lead
the I"y<:hic s)"'tem to a proc=ing of forms that it experiences as an "." ..
Creativity and Contingency: Historical  
In his insistence on th. contingent and ma,.rial aspeclS of the creatiYe process,
Kleist re.O, to the paradoxical situation that ani.stic creativity fae .. at the end of
the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. During that period, art begins to
reject set rules and regulation. and instead .ub,n ibes to codes .uch as nowne ...
originality, and authenticity to di>!inguish itself from non-art. These new codes
can be understood in the context of the functional differentiation of society.
a, promoting and sustaining the art .y>lfm'> newly gained autonomy. Artistic
autonomy doe, not mean that art can no longer rxpress social. political, or
other inter .. ts, but rather that art will define itsel f and its function(.) according
to its 0>>11 >!andard, without relying on nonartistic factors ,uch "' morality.
economic fe ..   philo,ophical truth, the wishes of a Jldtron, etc. to dedare
",hat art is and what it i, not. The in,istence on autonomy lead, to arguably
the most important development that accompanie, the differentiation of the
modern ,y>!em of art, the rej"'tion of the Ari,totelian mimesi' postulate. Art
can no longer be defined in term. of its mimetic function or its representational
content, for any representation, stricti)' >!ated. will be dependent on ",hat it
",ants to represent and hence will not be autonomou" That doe. not pr"'lude
representation per se (after all. it wiU 'till be a long time before the nonrepresen-
tational art. fully develop) but merely pr",lud .. t hat representational content i.
used to distinguish art from non-art. The rejection of the Aristotelian mim .. i.
postulate has important con""luenc .. for the undemanding of the artist and
hi. role in the art production proces,. In a strict >ense. for the creating anist the
artwork must be new and original too, It can no longer be a representation of
something pr"Siyen to the anist, not even, for e""mple, something conjurffi up
by the artist'. imagination, a, we would say today. The cod., of the modern art
.ystem require that the anwork not be plannffi. fo,,,,,,,,n. or othe",;,. imagined.
But how, then. i, the artist to conceptualize and create the
Historically the paradoxical situation in which the anist found him- or her-
.. If at the end of the eighteenth centur}' promote<! the celebration of the artist
a. genius and exceptional subject_nd thi' despite (or better kcause) the
dear awareness of the paradoxes creatffi for a n anthropocentric \'iewpoint
claiming that art cannot be intendffi. Kant, for example, in hi' Critiq"e of
iudgnlrm---one of the fim text, that explicitly add res ... the que>!ion of art
from the I""rspective of its autonomy----<lefines t he artist-genius along a set of
paradoxes. According to Kant, the artist must make the anificiallook natural.
produce something purposeful that ne-verthel .... appears to be ",ithout purl'''''.
and act intentionaUy without .. eming intentional. ' Such paradoxes do not I. ad
the aesthetic dis<our .. to rethink the codes that invite them or to rethink the
er .. ti ... proces.s itself(as I want to do below, drawing on Luhmann' , concept
of self-programming); rather they lead to an idolization of the artist-geniu,
unheard of in previous times. From a sociological pe"'p«tiv •. we could sa}' that
like god for religion, the creative genius functions as a ' centralized paradox" for
... 183
the sptem of an: he i, the point where all the apparent contradictions produce<l
by the new cod ... of the an system are explained in term, of the 'pe<:ial abilities
that define the arti't-genius, Turning paradox in to tautology, the ani5l -geniu. is
who he is because he can do what he can do. He ha, the ability to intentionally
act unintentionally, to la"fully break laws, to allow the anificial to be natural,
and to act without awaren ..... Or as Karl Moritz., the GeT-
man _iur, psychologist, and ... thetic thinker who articulated the .utonomy
of art a few years before Kant, put it, the creati ... geniU5 d"", not know what
h. or ,he i. doing yet fed. that he or ,he has to do it. The artist see. him- or
herself determined in his/h .. determination of the artwork.'
As indicated ab.we, th ... paradoxe, can be understood as r"ponse, to the
autonomy gained by the art'yste",. The ani"   determined in his deter-
mination of the artwork because he reeogni, .. Ihat the creation of the artwork
follow. its own logic let us now bring in the sociologistl\iJdas Luhmann more
rxplicitly and l(H)k at hi' figurations ofthe art-creating proc ..... In his '990 =y
"World An," Luhmann distinguishes "object arl," which aim. al representing
existing or imagined objecls, from "world art," which no longer rep .... "ts
percei,-ed or imagined worlds but rather calculates (that is., co",lruct, ) its own
world,. While objeet an is in principl. ",im.tic- Luhmann .. lat .. it to the
cosmological worldview of p .. mOOern societies, which h. distingui,hes from
th. transcendental world" iew thai underlies mooern soc;ely- world an po,;t" It
works with the restriction. and option. that it deri" .. from ilS own operation<. "
Luhmann draws on Spencer-Brown'. form calculus to describe the creati".
proceM in the abstractterminoiog)' of di,tinction then!)-.
The appeal of Spencer-Brown', Law, of Fort" is it. ability to concei"e of art
in pre-.. presentational terms. In th •• trict sen.., employe<! by Spencer-Brown,
di, tinction. are not,igns that denote a preexi5ling reality, world, idea, or thing,
but rather the drawing of distinction. i, seen as an operation used by (observ-
ing) sy,tem, to construct world" objects., idea" thing., and also signs." The
di' tinction betwe. n sign' and di,tinctions aligns neatly with Luhmann', di,-
tinction between object art and world art. While object art relies on siSn< and
symbols., world art constructs its reaiity through the drawing of and opewing
with (confirming, condensing, canceiing, reentering, .tc) distinctions. After
th. initial, arbitrary positing of a distinction, the artwork wiU increasingly be
defined by the restriction, and pos.sibilities introouced by each subsequent di,-
tinction. Th. selection of distinctiOn< wiil in turn be guided by anistic codes. "
Drawing on Spencer-Brown, Luhmann i, abl .. to .pe<:ifr the meehanics and
dynamics of ani'tic creativity as a self-ordering proc .... and d.tail how order
i, gained from chao, and nec.s.sity from contingency. "
In Art as a Social Sysrem, Luhmann build. on this model and explains
go,'erning of thi'   and the transition from the contingent to the nff-
.. sary that it by di'tinguishing code and program. In a nut-
shell, Luhmann argu .. that the functional differentidtion of Western society
leads to the -self-organization" of modern art. Stlf-organiz.l1iou ",ean. that
an opeJ'3tionaUy cl"",d 'ystem use. its own opt .. tio", to build structure,. Art
alway, u...,(l code. (most importantly the code. beautiful/ugly and interest-
ing/unintere,ting) and Program' are selfftion crit eria th .. govern
",hat en,uing opeJ'3tion, "'ill be chosen during t h. production or the observa-
tion of an by deciding ",hether a particular selection belongs to the positive
or the n<'gati ... nlue of the code. In the century, luhmann
code and program separated and began to reorganize the self-organization of
art. Espe<:ially the demand for newne .. made it to base one', se-
lection criteria on experience, rul .. , or existing art. now the artwork had to
offer its own program, Luhmann caU, the subsequent rrorganization of the
creati"e process the ·self-programming" of mode", art. Self-programming
mean. that the artwork, in the processofi!> creation, has to dewlop the program
that gow"" its construction. By d"'eloping a program, contingent decision.
that mark the beginning of the creative proce" increa'ingly narrowed
until the creative proce .. senle, into a necessary ",hole: ·Creating a work of
art- according to one's capabilities and on., imagination---1:enerau, the
dom to mah deci'ions on the b .. i, of which one can continue one', work.
The freedom' and nece"iti .. one encounte .. are entirely the products of art
itself. . , , The 'necessity' of cenain consequences experienc", in one', work
or in the encounter with an anwork i, not impo...,(l by la"" but result, from
the fact that one began, and how."" Only while working on the anwork i. the
'pace for deci,ion. defined, All ,ubsequent choices. those that seem necessary
a, well as those that seem are determined by the emerging artwork itself.
The concrete, step-by-step realization of the artwork is completed and the
artwork a ",uec"" and novelty' when the "program saturat .. , as it were, the
individual work, tolerating no further production. of the same kind. ""
Above r argued that the demand for newness, authenticity, and originality
precludes that artwork can be (fully) planned or foreseen by the anist.
Simply put, if the artist is no longer allowed merely to represent what i, already
the .. or to follow particular rules or to copy vreviom models., the creati,'e
work cannot follow a predefined plan." The · plan'" (program) must emerge
during (rather than prior to) the creation of the artwork Subsequently, each
artwork must be <constructed from contingent beginnings, requiring that the
artist "improvise" {understood in the limited 5tnse ,uggested by Klei.t', ,hort
lext) until the program for the particular work of art em"'ge .. Drawingon Ihe
conceptual mcabulary of theory, then, we can understand the need
for spontaneity and improYi>ation as deriving from the operational closure
of the 'ystem of art. To guarant'" newne .. , authenticity, and originality, and
hence to guarantee art', aUiOnOm)', the artwork must direct its own comple-
tion. Luhmann', model also allow, us to underotand what Gadamer called the
"qualitative leap betw",n planning and making, on the one hand, and suae"ful
completion on the other" - namely, a< a co""eq uence of the .df-programming
that each artwork individually must achie ... and that cannot be anticipated
before its adual completion."
Contingency and
It is important to note that from the nrocybernetic point or.';.w, there is no
oeM to hypostasize contingency, Continge""ies exist onlyin reg,ud to particular
rxpe<:tations of n«:eMity- that is, when an observer identifies events that e",ape
or di>appoi nt such eXpe<:tations (for exam pie, m ",t i ng an old ac q uaintanc e afte r
many years while crossing the street in the middle of a foreign city constitutes
a coincidental e .... nt notlx-<:ause each person did not have sufficient cause to
be at the particular place at that point in time but because such an encounter
wa, not to be expectM), Hence, what is necessary for the artwork n",d not be
for the artist, and "ie< wr>a' the a.ti st might well perceive his or her choice, as
nece.sary, from the point of view of the emerging artwork; however, they will
appear a, contingent until they are succe .. fully integrated (become n"es.sary)
through the establishing of a particular program, The use, for example. of the
color blue might seem important and necessary during a particular period of an
artist', life, from the point of view of the painting, how .... ·er, this initial prefer-
ence of one particular color must become part of the artwork's program for it
to succeed or at le .. t for the color to malter aesthetically, "
Insisting thus on a systemic heterogeneitr betw",n artist and artworks runs
counter to much of the popular understanding of art and literature with its
biographico-psychological emphasi' on the arti,t', life, experience, feelings,
e1e. From the s)'stems-theoretical peTSpe<:ti"e, art i, not the "rxpression" of the
artist at all but can account for the idiosyncrasies ofth. artist a1 best as n" .. -
sa!l contingencies, What .. ems "n"essary" to the artist from the personal,
biographical, political. "onomic, or ",'en suixon",ious psychological point of
,-iew is, with regard to the artwork itself, mere contingency, In the end, it is the
am..-ork, not the anist, that d"id .. what is   .. ry and meaningful. Of course,
this does not mean that t"hnical expertise and skills, as woll as tho artist's
partic-ular knowledge, would not define import.nt parameters for the emerging
artwork; nor doe. it mean that we wal not continue to take inter .. t in tne arti>!
and ni. or ner consciom or pr .., .ubconscious motivation,. Knowl.-dge
about tn. artist will help us acquire, focus. and appl)' background knowledge.
which may be needed to apprfCiate the complexity, originality, or onene" of a
particular work of art int.nrctuall), or .motionall),. and thus such information
"m be important in many regards; it wiU, how ..... r. not define what is artistic
about a particular work nor aUow u. to distinguish art from non-an. "
So far in m)' argument. I ha"e negifCted to distinguish dearly between the
presentation of contingenc), in art and tne presentation of contingency as art.
Kleist present' contingency on the narrative, ..,mantic. and semiotic level,'"
his writ ing itself. however. doe, not follow. fo r eumple, the compo,itional
.trategi .. of ·spontaneous prose," a. Jack K.rouac e""i.ioned and practic.-d
them some one hundred and fift), ),ears later. The majority of modem literature
does not foll ow K.rouac but rather rxplore, coming,ncy on the narrative and
semantic leveL At least sinceth. early twentieth century (emblematicall), with
Kafka ).literdture has excelled in creating a sense of contingency for its nanatiw.
and for the narrator'. and/or character'. hes, action., Yiewpoint', etc. That
is. as modern noyels center around characters who are     because
th'1' fail to identify with the norms., ,·iews. beliefs. action •. and expe<tation, of
their social surroundings (again, think of Kafka or, paradigm.tically. ofMusi!".
Man ",;,110,/1 or. more radically, of Samuel &eke"'s writings),
th.), expose as cont ingent the OOse",uion, and observational directi,'es of their
social surroundings.
In this regard, contingency distinguishes modern literature from other repre-
sentations (that is. constructions) ofthe ·world, While sci.ntific, religious, or
philosophical representations of the world. for example, must rely on notion.of
causal it)'. teleology, transcend.nce. or transcendentali!), to give tneir world(s )
and worldyie"" I",,,essit)', modem literature seems to thriw on refusing to
insinuate "nrce .. ity" into its construction. of the world. Its reliance on con-
tingency. how,,'er. doe. not impl)' • lack of """ial engagement or rel,,'ancr. To
mention. more r"ent writer, if we think ofW. G. Sebald'. artistic interweaving
of hi'torical. semi -biographical, and ficti onal n."at;' · .. around contingent
.ncount'rs, events., and photograph,. we will find a world saturated with a sense
of cont ingency, ),et no Ie .. re l"·dnt, eng.<sed and engaging in its commentary
on Germany'. past and present engagement (or lack thereof) with its past.
Luhmann's concept of self-programming suggests that .rt t",,,,form. con-
tingency into n"e"it)'. That is, it suggests that the form of modern an i, the
unity of this distinction .• unity that Luhmann unfold> b), temporalizing it.
The unity of this di>tinction- that is, the reemry of thi s form within art- also
distinguishes modern art from premodern art premodern W.,tern
society going back to Aristotle defined arl in contradistinction 10 realily, as
whal is po"ible but not necesS.lry (while realily is nt'Cessary,l. This
dirt'Ctivel "Look at one as necessary and al the other as contingenl"j is reentered
by modern afl', demand Ihat art (the contingent) make the contingent nec .. -
sary. From a formal point of ,·iew. this '''''ntry can take two different forms. On
the one hand, arl can coming""t necessity-thai is., contingent
and necessary worlds as necessary. David Robens' s understanding of the fom,
of the no--.I as the reentry of the distinction bet",,,,,n fiction and reality can be
read along lines, Roberts argues Ihat Ihe modern novel a. it emerges at
the end of the eight""nth century acquires its of realism by distinguishing
within     reality and fiction." On the other hand, art can pre .. nt
""'-"'''1)' comi"ge"<y-that is, contingent and necessary worlds a. contingent.
The latter ,,,,,mry marks. I ""'Quid argue, form. of the "fantastic' and the un-
canny in literature (and an)-that is, genr .. or at least moments where the
line between what is "real" and whal is imagined is blurred and the distinction
betw""n the real and the unreal is canceled. In both c ... s. with the reali,m of
the modem novel and wilh its fantastic counterpart, Ihe reentry undermines
the mono-contextual worldview of the premodern ob .. rvational direclivelhat
insists on the distinction between what is real and what is fiction.
lmprovi.ation and the Mode,n Differentiation of the Art Sy.tem
Thus far my historical considerations h"'e u .. d "improvisation" as a heuristic
device 10 ""plain the creation of autonomous art without having to resort to
paradoxical figurations of intentionality ,uch as the ideas of "creative seniu.·
or of a "subconscious. " 1 haw neglected the performance a.pect of improvisa-
tion.; today when we speak of artistic improvisation, we a"ulllt thai it hap-
pens on a stage or otherwise before a live audi. ncr. Improvisation, defined
in this more nafrow .. n .. as the sjmul/m,rou5 mncrption p"''''''/Mjon of
has it5 own hi.tory in mu.ic, theater, and " I""ially poetry." In poetry
in particular, as Angela E.<terhammer has shown, the practice of improvisa-
tion as the public performance of poetic creativity was imported from halyto
northern Euror< in the lair eighlrenth century and .... ·ed both "as a model
and foil for an emerging Romantic aesthetics of genius, originality and inspira-
tion. "" Esterhamm .. daborat ... in considerable detail how halian performance
art both troubled and inspired early-nineteenth-century aesthetics, becoming
"a widespread trope for the problematics of spontaneity, performance and
identity as thoy plJ}"d themsel\'" out on the international Romanti(
until. by the mid-nineteenth century, improvisational performance. had ac-
quired. ",·.rifty· show aura.""
The fortune. of improvi>ation in art change again in the twentieth cemury.
Now improYisation is no longer identified wit ll its particular Italian practice
but rather h<-comes part of art in general- that is, it is practiced in as \dried arts
as painting, music, poetry. and theat .. and (i mportant for such mowmmts)
arti.tic school. and styles as Dadai.m, futurism. expre"ionism. jazz., Beat lit ·
eralUre, or performance art. This de ... lopment-as wdl as the recognition of
experimental and impro\'i>ational art forms a. legitimale contributions to the
art sys .. rn------signal, an incr .... d openne .. towa rd contingency. In this .. gard,
luhmann' s idea of a complete saturation het",een program and artwork neglect.
the role that contingency plays in modern art, whe .. no longer all dement',
aspects. decision., etc. (an be subsumed under a who!.. luhmann', account
.. ems to be indebted to ideal. of "completeness" and "perfection" .. wr find
them in the amheti, writing. of Moritz or Kant. hardly shared by any
of the more experimental art form. of the twentieth and twenty-first centurie5.
Thi. i, most apparent with performed improYisation •. Here contingency i. no
longer confined to the beginning of the creati"e pl"O(e" but is stimulat ing and
incorporatrd throughout the performance. IInpto\'i>ational theate r produc-
tion., for exam pl., rely on continued feedback from the audience and
jazz impro\'isations on spur-of-the-moment decisions by the performer or the
input of other band membe .. for the continuat ",n of the performance. This
do("!' not preclude the artwork's stlf-programming per "'. In fa<1. if one did
not expect a program. on. could no longer distinguish bell'· •• n sU(cfS.Sful and
unsu,cfS.Sful improYisations-----4hat is., one would break with one of the primary
cod .. of the art system. " How"· ... the increased openn ... toward contingency
challenge. the idea of a co"'plelcsalUrat",n   program and artwork (and
.ub:sequentlrperhap. the idea of the work of art as a closed and complete unit).
Unplanned mo\·ements. splash .. of color, broken glass, feedback from the
audience, involuntary memori .. , computer-generated randomne .. , or maybe
once again the twitch of an upper lip may all flow into the creati ... procfS.S,
continually irritating the ",If-programming of the artwork.
In opening the art system further toward contingencies, impro"i>ations make
an important contribution to the diffe .. ntiation of the system of art . From a
systems-theoretical perspective, ",r could say tha, impro\'isat",n and the overall
incorporation of contingent ele",ents injeo "no i"," into the .y.tem: ther pro-
yide a rewurce pool from which the system can draw new impulses to create
new forms and build new structures. Such "noi ... doe. not threaten but rath ..
reproduction of complex sy,tems, 'tabilizing by making
them more adaptable to change, in Iheir through the increa>ed
"ariely they (an provide. Were a (ertain art form'. ability to be interesting to
fade. the art will alrrady have developed alternative, to take its place.
System, theory, in alher word., despite il> sometimes con>ervatiw reputation,
'"'"Quid ha"e us pin our hope, for the stability and continuation of art and il5
rdeyance on con51ant change and increase of variation, rather than promote a
return to "proven" artistic modds and genres,'"
Improvisations contribute not only "ariety 10 the art by providing it
with a constant 110w of new form" lna>much a. they are particularly bound ro
the demands for n<"WlleM and is, ina.much as theyareexpeaed
demonstrably nor to follow la,",,, and pr",xisting pat1erm-- they will also make
such laws, patterns, and structures obsen,able to a higher degr",. At this point
of the argument, we once again n",d to ",sume a Sffond-order persp«tive and
observe the unity of the distinction betw .. n contingent and planned a<1ion •. In
improvisation, these arr ,upplemental term;-that is, ea(h sid. of Ihe di51in(-
tion defines and pre<:onditions the other. Aft er aU. one (an improYise----that is,
successfully act in unplanned, unforeseen, and unprepared wa),s------<>nly when
one knows what one callnor do be<:ause it i •• lready known or expected or fore-
seeable. Such     i. also exp«ted from the audiencr . It i. one"
and hence one'sexp«tations for a particular art form and for art in general that
will determine what one is able to identify and appre<:iate as art.
In this regard. the deyelopment of the artist>iaudience, on the one hand,
and the .rtwork, on the other, is slructurally (oupled. As art (hanges, Ihe ex-
pectations of the artist>iaudience change, and vice wrsa; as the expectations of
the artist>iaudiencr change, art musl change. Accordingly. breaking with Jaws
and expectations wiU not only lead 10 higher yariety, but wiU also encourage
the system to actualize and ' ory il> own laws and ,tructures. Put differrntly.
be<:ause improvi\.ations asked not to conform to the codifications of the
art 'y'tem, the), are able to make these codification. visible. Subsequently. im-
provi",t;"ns creat. nOi only new forms and structures. but also an eye for that
whi ch is already old, common, and therefore ,h ould no longer count as having
arti.ti( ,·alue. A, a con>equence, pe,formed impTOYisation. (an be understood
as increasing the reflexivity of the sJ"tem. its ability to observe and connect to
its own operat;"ns."
What sel"'rates the art s}"tem from other social subsystems is "ariety of
forms and the degree of reflexivity at its disposal and subsequently Ihe ""'erall
complexity that it can accomntodate in it, creal ions. Put differently, whil.
most social.ub,}""n,, are bound to explain "things" in one way or another
and hence (following Luhmann'. famous definit ion) will haw to ,educe com-
plexity to produce m .. ning. art can afford to present form, that do not have
to rxplain (things or themselv .. ). Thi nk, for example. ofl iterary representa-
tion, of historical e\"ems., of family dynamics, of madne .. , etc.- i"u .. that in
other fidd, of study will receive ..... diff ... nt t reatment •. A, a re,ult , litera-
ture and art are able to accommodate more naturally a much higher degree of
tmprovisat ion as a form·[venl
After these brief ""olutionary considerations of the effect. of impro"isation on
th •• ystem of art. I want to tum to the oth .. phenomenon raised by Kleist ', ,hort
text on M irabeau' •• pttcb---namely, to the e"ent-character of improvisation.
Simply put, I want to addr ... the qu .. tion of how performed impro,-i",lions
capliy.te their audience. In particular, I am interested in the a .. theti, e'peri-
ence during the aclual perfomlance. rather than in the po"ible adoration for
the artist or the artwork that might follow and fred one', interpreti"e desi, ...
Rai,ing .uch queslions is in line with the gen ... 1 ,hift in.rt toward the pro-
duction of effect •. Although in recent years Ihi •• hift has finally recei"ed wider
attention in academic circle" we still lack a crilic,,1 "oxabulary that would allow
us to describe the performance charact .. of improvisations rath .. than merely
interpret its potential meaningor dO"SCribe the particular technique, emplo)·ed.'"
The absence of such a critical yoxabulary is es(,«!ally regrettable with regard
to improvi>ation be<:au" he .. the event -character i, an e,senlial part of Ihe
simultaneou, conceplion and presentation of an.
as ",·ent •• improvi>ations., in a .trict sense, are nonrepresentational,
nonmeaning producing acl>. That doe, not imply that improvi>ation, cannot
represent something or .. rry a particular meaning. How","er , neither what is
represented nor its potential meaning distinguishes improYi>alion from oth ..
creative activiti., or can define the particular "ffect created by a performed
improYi>ation, the trmporal and sen,ual immediacy of the act. The ,imult. -
n,005 conception and presentation of art appears to be able to capti"ate an
audience and create an "experience of presence" (Gumbrecht), independenl
of any m.aning that subsequently might or might not be attached to ,uch a
performancr. To som. extent, such an "experience of presence" might be crr -
ated by all performances and perhaps by all art that "succeed,"- that is, art
that is able to present ilself as an object or act that draw. the attention of the
oose"'er in a uniquely inten,ified and inten.ifying manner.'" N""erthde", only
in impro"i>alion and performance art doe, thi' effect be<:ome the   goal
of the creati ... act. Became of their fleetingne .. , they must he able to draw the
attention to the here and now.
How i, this done, and howcan it he d=rib"d? To an,wer the .. questions.,
I want to build on a '999 essay by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht entitled "Epiphany
of Form: On the BeautyofTeam Spons." I am panicularly interested in Gum-
brreht's u", of "form" to d"",rihe what he "all, the of pre",n"e"
in American football. I should note that the analogy of sport' and art is not
ba .. d on the circumstance that in spons, too. we find improvisation in the
",n", of unplanned and unexpected actions; ra ther, I am interested in the fact
that 'ports events share with impro\'isations the central characteristics of ,uc-
ceMful (noted and notable) performance5--namely, the foem they command
on the here and now. The ,ub"'quent anal)"i' of a 'pon, ""em or a performed
improvisation might be interesting, even intriguing, in terms of its mesmer·
izing elfret, how"'er, it will never mmpare to what people experience when
they ob",rve an actual anistic perfonnance or a .pon, match, a li"e race, their
team competing in a SO(<er tournament, etc. "
As Gumbrreht and others hJ\'e argued ( .. e also, for example, Fischer-Lichte).
hermeneutic approaches to such phenomena- that is, approaches that ",arch
for meaning or symbolism in ,uch events---a, interesting as they might be, miss
prrei",ly this effect. Taking what he call, the "bl ind ,pot" of hermeneutics (that
it always operates in the realm of repre"'ntation) as his starting point, Gum-
brKht locates the ' Other of mimesi'" in the production of presence. GumbrKht
defines pre .. nce not as something gi\'en or .. If-",'ident in the Hus.s.erlian ",n",
ofthe word and as Derrida liked to dKonstrua it. but rather as "form-as-event,"
"' "the convergence of an event-elfKt an embodied form.""   Gum-
brKht defines 'i mply as a 'ingular and conti ngent action; "form" he defines
as twofold-on the one hand (following the musicologi't Gerhard Berger), as
a "movement whose dirKtion we want to see mntinued: and on the other
(following Luhmann', preferred reading of Spencer-Brown', form concept),
as th. unity of 3 distinction. With the latter. we haw to understa nd fonn as a
distinction that conmucts what it makes ob""'able in the first place,
By drawing on Sp<ncer-Brown 's calculus., Gu mbre<:ht escapes an ontological
worldview but alw the danger of creating a pre .. nce category that could be
interpreted in terms of religiou, immanence (all accusation he refutes at length
in hi' more rKent book on the Pr",lucrim, of Presl'Mcd. As indicated abow.
Spencer-Brown', form concept is u",ful here becau .. it i, not repre .. ntational.
but rather op<rational. letting complexity emerge from a !impl . and contin-
ilKau", of this pre-representational quality. th. form con-
cept lends it .. lf to d=ribing events that cannot be accounted for in terms of
192 fOGAR lAHOGU r
their representational properti .... This is the case with the ,,'ent -character of
a sports match or ""rforme<! improvisation, they are not about anything that
would preexist the event itsdf: rather, the ,,-ent, as Gumbrecht puts it, is about
its own emergence. about the original emerging of forms. Gumbre<:ht, read-
ing with Luhmann a strongly cogniti," dimension into the form concept of
Spencer-Brown, argu .. that this originating pro",ss captivat .. the anenti<Jn of
the audience by mnfronting the audi.nee with forms in the Spencer-Brownian
sense-that is. with the unity of distinctions. American football, for example,
confronts the audience with a playing fidd that i. first empty and then fi ll ed:
with pia)' ... that are once frozen then mow: with situations where nothing
happens but something i. about to happen: where someone i. here and then
there. etc For team .ports., the distinction between entropy and negentropy.
chao, and order, is especially important, Whil ... the defense fights for order,
the offen .. attempts to create chaos for the defense and hence has to act in
an unforeseeable and fashion, and "ct" , .,.,.,.,. The tension. but also
the excitement for the audience, i. greatest when the offense i, able to surpri ..
through unfore .. en and unprepare<!-for actions or when the defense is able to
react to ,uch a challenge ,uccessfully.
Artistic improvisations, I want to argue, aim in comparable waY" to captivate
the a11ention of the audience and to produce I,,,,,,nce. Improvisations stage
the emergencr of new form, as an ,,'ent : they are singular, momenta!,)', and
contingent. Singularity further heighten. the tension bKau .. what is presented
cannot be taken back, Every moment munt.: ",'ery decision is final and there-
fore of increa .. d significance." Improvisation. also create "form." according to
both of the definitions Gumbre<:ht u .... Corresponding to Berger', defi nition
of form, improvisations create a movement whose dire<:tion we want to ...
continued. In art, such a desire for continuation can be explained in term. of
Luhmann' , concept of self-programming: tlK increased narrowing of possible
choices dire<:t. the mntinuation of the creative process as well a. the 'pe<:tator',
attention and expectation. Past sele<:tio", dfCide what .ub"'luent selecti<Jn.
are desirable or not. possible or not. Jazz mu,icians haw long had an eye for
thi' effect. Paul Berliner. in hi. exten,i"e . tudy of the different techniques used
in jazz impro"i>Jtion. quotes Max Roach describing hi. experience     ~ t h im-
pro\-isati<Jn, • After you initiate the solo, one phra .. determine, what the next
is going to be. Frolllthe first note that you hear, you are responding to what
you\'e just playe<!: )'OU just said this on your instrument. and now that ', a
constant , What follows from that? And then the next phrase is a mnstant. What
follow. from that! And w on and so forth , And finall)', let'. "Tap it up w that
e .... rybody understand, that that' , what you're doing. Jt ', like language: )'ou' re
  fORM ... EYEN! 193
lalking, speaking, you're responding 10 yourself. When I play, it's like
having a conwrSdtion with myself. ""
Based on similar ob'it"'dtions., Gioia suggests that we distingui,h two
creative methods to separatelhe "eative process in traditional art from impro"i -
sations. While tradilional an follows what Gioia . alls the blueprint method (that
is, it plans ahead), improvisations use Ihe - retTOspt'Cliw method: According
10 thelaner. arti<l can <lart his work wilh an a1mo<l random
brush stroke on a can"as., an opening line, a musical motif- and then addpt
his later moves to this inilial gambit. "" Such descriptions understand impro-
visalion as a complex fee<lback process that builds forms out of contingent
d ements by relating present to pa'i decisions. The impro"isalion
re'ponds to itself, repeating and altering, changing and rephrasing what has
come before. Berliner describes in great detail the many possibilities jazz im-
prO\'isers ha,'e in "responding to their own - for example, - by pausing
briefly after an initial statement, then repealing it, perhaps with minor chang ..
such as rh}1hmic rephrasing. This al", aUows time for the pla)'er to concri,'e
optiol1< for Ihe subsequent phrase's formulation . . .. Anists may ' run' the figure
directly 'into itself,' perhaps through a slight extension or short connr<:lion pat-
tern, treating the figure as a component within a longer phrase .... Experien .. d
improvisers can "edle yariationson each feature of extensi,'e melodic-rhythmic
material within the framework of length), anliphonalphrases.'"
Wilhout drawing on the disco urse, Berliner describes impro-
visation as a computalion of complex form,. Impro"isation, draw, condense,
coniirm, cancel, and compensate distinctions. This computation of forms con-
stilutes an evolutionary process that is a process of ",riation, selection (pro-
gram), and stabilization. Performed impro"isations thus process and rdate
rntropyand negentropy, chao. and order, ,t ructure<l and unmucture<l, pre-
pared and unpreparffi, known and unknown dements. In jazz, for example,
improvisations often sian with or allude to or culminate in known melodies or
harmoni .. that won after are decomposed again. Th. effect of surprise espe-
cially hinges on resorling to and then changing the familiar. Theatric improvi -
sations similarly work with known dements, familiar quotes., characters, plots.,
situations, etc. jusl 10 change them around again in each performance."
This play wilh forms, I would argue, is designed and able to draw our cog-
nitive att.ntion. Th. observer wants to know what will happen next, which
distinctions will be condensed, confirmed, cancele<l, or compens.ate<l. r n an, it
would seem, such eXpe<:tatioll5 will be create<l and directed both by the general
codes of the an system (for better or worse, we yisit concem or museums with
different expectations than we haw for the demisI's office) and by th. program
thai Ihe work of arl or perfom,ance develop, for ilself. The laUer pre"'nt. a
particular challenge Ihal i. di.linct from Ihe kno",edge and experience needed
when we walch, for example. a .pons e,.ent. While Ihe 'port, connoi,seur has
10 learn Ihe rules and paramelers of a .porl and know il' major figure. and
int.rnal dramas. Ihe process of "recognilion" i, more illlricale in art . Here
Ih. "rul .. " are nol known in adYance. The artwork mu.t devdop a unique
program for it,df. Improvisations. and performance art in general. challenge
the OO"''''er to recognize the unique program ... il em .. ge. for the first time.
If the OO .. ,,'er ,ucceed. in identifying ,uch a program (the si mpl"l exam pl.
might be that of a particular rh)1hml. the self-programming of the performance
wm become more and more compelling and make an idenlification with the
OO .. ",ed proce .. possible.
Identification here would mean that temJXI.arily one would no longer
OO""'e the action from a distanc<,-that i" draw on.', own distinction. to
00 .. ,,'. the e",nt-bUT i"'tead would   the proc .... That i" to experi-
ence a performance a. such, one has to experience the logic of the distinction.
drawn and the operations performed as one'. own. The point i, that such an
identification with the pe. formance i. nOi ,ymbolically mediated. as Adorno
would haye it. but rather results from a (neyerthel .... cognilive) identification
with Ihe "'If-programming of the form-creating process. In jazz. such form.
of embodiment are commonly referred to as "feeling or as "setting into the
groo\'e: a, stat .. of affe<:tedne ... that compel artist and audien« to identify
with the ongoing performance. The e"""rienee i, intensified----that is., ten.ion
i. created and attention drawn-by the particular temporal5llUcture of per-
forman"". Confronted with form, (Ihe unily of distinction.). lime appears to
expand: the obs.e"',, wait, for the tension 10 be ,...,lved, for the play to start.
the performance to continue, the mdody to reappear, the painting or sculp-
ture to take shape. the program 10 settle. etc. The 00"''''..-' re -tension. where
time seems to expand, i. opposed to the moment of decision and recognition.
which focu .. , th. altention of the ob""'er alone on the here and now. During
artistic improvisations., re-tension and deci.ion do not simply follow each other;
,ath .. both are ,imultaneously p.oc ...... d. captivating the obs.e,,'er's attention
cOnTinuall)" between re -tension and decision.
Materiality and f OJm
One ofluhmann '. most contro\,."ial and yet fllndamentally important theo-
rem. mncerns th. "'paration bet"""n consciousness and communication as
two independently operating closed system. that cannot determine each oth ....
operation •. At first glance, Ihi' ba,ic theorem s«m, incompatible with ide .. of
presence or embodiment as I have tried to describe them above. How can art or
a pe,formanc<'-5OCial phenomena- Heale a particular ,talO of consciousnrss?
Per .. , they cannot, of course. M al l of u. who haw fallen asleep atlhe opera,
were bored in a mu>eum, di' tracted during a concert, or .imply annoyed by
a particular performance will know, no work of art and no performance can
determine if and how it will be percei\'ed by t he p.ychic .y.tem, it finds in
its environment. Art mn only offer STructures that the psychic 'ySTem will or
will not (be able to) adopl. Furthermore. the ability to apprKiaie and experi -
ence art or any pt"rformance is acquired. A pusan who has never li.tene<! to
jan before wal no1 be able to app=iat< the ,ubtleties and inno\'ativene" (or
lack thereof) of a particular performance. Nor will he or she be able 10 em·
body the self-programming of the emerging work or a particular improvisa·
tion. M indicated abo"e, even team .port. require a considerable amount of
pre· knowledge (rule" chardcter" and narrati",,'s) for the e .... nt to be "lived. "
Art. beuuse of in .. If· programming, require.., I would argue, a higher de·
gree of readine" and a more refined form of expertise. Yet ""en when one i.s
fully prepared and familiar with a particular an form, cognitiye identification
with the proces, wiU be momentary and sporadic and can by no means be
guaranteed. "
I make this point to underline that any "experience of pr ... nce" i, produce<!
by the internal operations of the psychic 'y'tem. Art can irritate the psychic
')"Stem and offer particular observation, to it. but it cannot delermine or define
il5 operation" Put differently. the p,ychic sy5lem mU5llearn how to react to the
irritations of art. How",'er. thi' does not mean Ihat Ihe apprKiation of art and
the "e:cperienceof presence" can take place only on the consciou, or intellectual This i, where Spencer -Brown', form concepl is most useful. It allows
us to describe Ihe obseryational modes of 'y5lem, without having to presup-
pose (or exclude, for that matter ) meaning or intellect from the observational
process. In thi' regard. Spencer-Brown' , form concept presenl5 an alternaTive
or the possibility 10 "unpack" 'K.ntly redefined conception. of "materialiTy"
or "embodiment" Ih.t are ba....t on existentiali,tic or ontological definiTions
ofthe human body and our being-in-Ihe-world and that are often employed to
approach an ae,thetics of Ihe pt"rformaliYe. Erika Fischer-Lichte, for example,
find, the term "embodiment " central for her aestheticsofth. perform.tive. She
defines embodiment, however , in rather exi5lentiali.stic terms. Following the
anthropologist Thomas J. Cwrdas, she wanlS 10 "grant the body a comparably
paradigmatic po,ition as i, granted 10 text." The term "embodime"," ,hould
"open a new methodological field. where The rhenomenal bod)". the phy'ical
bt-ing-in-the-world of man, figure, as the condition for the pos.sibility of any
rultur:il production.""
I n an article from 1996, Cumbr""ht explicitly reje<-u the fonn -without -rna Uer
concept proposed by Luhmann" and Dirk Baecker', reading ofS""ncer-Brown,
arguing that "forms which arr events, forms which are 'bt-ing born to pre,-
ence' ... cannot occur without matter or substance-nor bt- anaJyud with-
out concep" of matter and ,ub,tance. ' " Gumbrecht 's most recent book on
the subject, Pr",/,miOM of Pr""",ce: IVlml M,,,,,i"g     Co",,,),, completely
omits S""ncer-Brown's or Luhmann', conception of form and instead draws
(among other write .. ) on Heid.sser and on semiotic considerations ( .. pecially
of transubstantiation) to explore mom.nts of presence where our
the-world" is noninterpreti,.., not primarily based on meaning, and in this
regard ,eems to o .. "come, albeit only temporaril)" the separation between
thought and being that defines our \V .. t<rn metaphysical culture. Such attemp"
to define material ity and presence in art in semi -existential or omologicaJ terms
ho"" to find an alt.rnative to the culture ofthought that domin .. e. (academic)
Western culture by grounding the authenticity of human ex""rience in the
materiality of the human body."
I want to suggest that drawing on system. theo!"}' and on Spencer-Brown's
pre-representational form concept allow, us to overcome the ""KeiYed division
between materialit), and body, on the one hand, and a culture of thought on
the oth.r. Neocybernetic discourse aUow, us to understand the "experience"
created by a person' , cognitive engagement with art without having to assume
an interpretiYe stance toward the work of art or performance. Thi' mea", that
we redefine cognition beyond the traditional subject/object distinction and
without linking it to the production of meaning, replacing the former with
the 'ystem/.nvironmem distinction and the with S""ncer -Brown', fonn
concept . With the help of such conceptual substitutions. w. can comprehend
the p,ychic and the ner"ous system. as observing and relating to their en"iron-
ment long before comprehension mediated through language and abstraction
is initiatN.
At crucial points of my argument , I ha" . relied on the concept of"expecta-
tion" to understand how the psychic system engage. a ""rformancf'----<hat is,
how it proc .... , irritations from the art system and how pt"rfonnances create
an intemified experience. Expe<-.ations create lemiom, resolutions, ,urprise.,
disappointments. etc. and thus structure our attention in patticular ways, en-
gaging us not only intell«tuaUy but also emotionally. In addition, .xpectation,
are a helpful con«pt in describing e>:perience ooause they do not have to be
conscious and yet, for the most part, they will be acquired. The nervous syst.m,
for .xample, mighl have boe.n Trained to ". xpect " a cenain stimulus (sm.ll,
sound, .tc.) upon .ntering a room, but will only r.act 10 or notice its own
"'1"'clations when they are nol nW. Thus, performances focus attention and
cr.ale .,·.nts by addressing and creating (confimling, raising, disappointing,
  etc.) up«lations of which one might or might notboe aware, The
1"'rfonnance or appreciation of a jazz improvisalion surely does not require--
for the moment of its 1"'rformance even p",lribitS---lhe careful analy.i, of Ihe
crealiv. process; yet a high I .... d of "ex1"'rti .. " entailing numerous conscious
and unconscious eXp«talions willboe at play. Sysum, theory . xplains ,uch th. p'l"'hic '}"Stern', ability to relmelo Ihe social '}"Stern and vier
, ... rsa---in tenns of structural Today the cognilive scienc ... can explain
the creation of unconscious .xpeaations as resulting from Ihe acquisition of
sp«ific cultural skills Ihrough the formalion of n.ural n.tworks .... As Dreyfus
and DreJfus remark, n.ural networks "prm'ide a modd of how the pasl can
affecl pr=nt pe""ption and action without the brain nee<ling 10 store specific
memories al .11,"0 Through undemanding and practier, proces .. s are embod-
ied- that is, they Gin ultimat.!y boe 1"'rformed without conscious or IhOUghlful
in\'ol,!. "
Two important points follow from these considerations. For on. thing, the
cone.plual modds used here help us not 10 hypostasi,. notions of"pr .... ncr:
"materiality," or "embodiment " as. lboelieve, Gumbrecht and many others
are in danger of doing when they rely on notions of maleriality and substance
{raTher than distinCTion and indicaTion) as preconditions for the po>sibiliTy of
"'perience and ob .. rvation, Such nOlions mak. it difficult to accounT for The
"'1"'ni .. required for both the creation and the appreciation of an. Drawing on
neocybemetic discourse. w. Gin instead ackno .... high of prior
knowledge and exposure n.eded for the creation of an "experi.nce of pres-
.nce· (even in ritualiSTic cultures. 1 would argue,   for Ihe event
is need.d) withoul having to ",sume that this u1"'rience is ba .. d (solely) on
conscious Gllculalions and understanding. This is not to owrlook Th. difference
between the experiencr cr.aTed by a live performance and Ihe u1"'ri.nce of
reading a book. The difference, however, is perhaps I." one of quality than of
quantity. In the 1"'rforming arts and in impro\'is.aTions. the play WiTh conscious
and unconscious '1<pe<Tations wil1lake place on multipl.lewls simultaneously.
Performances not only create an immediate confrontaTion with forms and fo".
special anent ion because of Ih. singularity and irr,,-er:sibility of Ihe process,
but they also "surround" psychic and n .. ,-ous systems, irriTaTing th.m on
multiple levels. Thi' creales situation. that cannot be replicaTed by books. mu-
seums. or lectures or "'en by virtual realiTi .. where eyes. ears. and maybe
our directional r.enr.e, ar .. timulated in a predetermined fashion. Thnole of the
body's presenco. then, would be defined and lim ited by the totality of observa·
tions and expectation> it can elicit. Systems tneorr and Spencer-Brown' , fonn
concept could help us analyze in morr detail (than was possible in tni, .... y)
the complex of possible irritation, of the nervous, psychic, and social system,
and the embodiment and experiences of presence made possible through their
t. For tho quote in the '1'igraph .nd , h. following quo«. from "On the Gradual rob·
ri<atien ofThough" Whik Sreaking," "'. lOci". A" Aby» Ixep Enough. ,,3-,0.
,. Think of Pent h.,ik.'. bmou. - mi.underst,nding." bit ... nd I:i .... 1><-
nu .. in German both weIll. hapren to >cund .imil.r. or the trial by ord •• 1 th.t
driv .. th<>tory in rhr DurL Tragedy in Klei" '. t<.Xl> oft.n r .. oJ " from the .tt.mpt
to .ttribul< meaning (. C'U". purpo>< ..... lition) to ""countered roincid.n<<>.
j . KI.il1. A" "by>.< /J",p   '40. Th. rejection of p,,,,,,.Jit.tion ••• croati,"
principl. find. i" rerhap. mOlt r.dical ani<uLtlion in Kk i.t' . bmou, .... y"an
the l'upprt Th ... er," with its claim th .. the.nd. of the worlJ m<'ft. that the utter
ab .. nceof ron",iou", ... i. 'Gual to infinite w n"'iou"' .... 'Gu .. ing the m .. icn<1te
",ith god.
4, Wdll>ery ",oJ. 10::1611 '. writing •• ,",berating .nd .nading nom,i", .trategi<> th.,
m .. imize thoopponuniti .. (0' the contingent ",d oKCidrnt.l to occur, Klei,,'. "an
theGroduaJ Fabric.tion: WeUl><ry argue .. eL.bora t."he alterityoflanguage, bow in
the proc ... of 'p«Xh prodoction "an :Ut""'tien t.Jk .. pL.c< through ",hi<h >cm<1hing
un(o'....."."'·.n by the ,ubject producing the 'f'<""<h.OITu,," ("Contingcncr," '-45 ).
The .herity ua gt', that "tho text """pe' my intention.1 conn 01." is, accord ins
to Wclll><ry, ' structurally n<"""",ry ingrediont for an "tt,,,,an« to i><com. an "'On!:
"Wh.ot Klei" h .. done, then, i. to introdu« <h.on« into the productien of .p«<h
it li<lf. Contingenri .. do not merely rome to I.nguage (rom tho outside bUI rather aro
ctr.cti" •. "", it ""re, from the begi nning. within tho indj,'iJ u:u ut"'ranCe. By "in.,.
of that f.ct (whi<h i. the be! of fadi<ity), the utter.lK. can b<rom •• n event. tho
.it< o( the <mergenc. o( tho new" (ibid.).
5. "Eo jst cin Sprung :t:Wi>chon Ptanrn und Mochen .in .... ib und dem Gding<n" (Ga-
da""". /Jj, >\k'UII/jIM ,j" ScI,o".", 44; n.nsl .. ion her. and in 'he (ollo"ing min.).
"Sprung" muM both INP and crael, 'pli1. AccorJing to Gad. mer'. highly peTcep-
ti" .nal)"'is- whi<h I am u,jng her< .nd in the following 10 dem.", ... some of tho
par.llels and J ifferrn«. bet"''''''' the anthropocentric. hermeneutical .pproKh to
. n and in nt'OC)'hemetic ,«orKeptualiution---i, is this "Sprung" between mal:ing
.nJ complc"ion that "di"ingui.n.. the .rtwork in it! uniqu"",,,, . nd iTTeploK.abil-
ity," Gad."",r r<l.",", this l<'Op to what W. lt..- IIenj.min r.11eJ lhe aur. o( the an-
wor" - Eo;,t cin Sprung, durch den .ichd •• Kun"well in ><iner finzig.>rt igkei' und
Un .. ",,,b.,hil .u"eichnot. E. i>1 d ... w •• W. h., Ilenj.min die Aura de. Kun>t-
"",rho. genannt lut " (ibid. ).
6. Fi .. h.,· Lichte in h .. import.nt >!tidr. ,;:""",ktl" l'riforltulliw" (Aesthotics of til<
perform.,i,,) . """ til< torm ' pt"rfonn.lli,·e lurn' to do""ib. til< ofl<" ",>l<,d d.,..
limin.,ion (En'grm,uIIg) of .n in the t.,.;o. ••• common tende ncy of differm, .n
fo,m.'!> ",..1;,," them .. l,· .. ;n t ll<i'perfo,m.nn: "Die imlTl<f wieJcr'''e
En'gren1ung de, Kilnsto ><i, den ""h,i!,'<r I.hren de. 2O.I.hrhunde", LoBt .ich .1",
. ]. perform.,i .. e Wende """=hreiben. Ob bildend. Kun>l. u.ik. Lit<fOlur oder
Th<ater---all. ,,,,,di .. ,,, dom •• ich in unJ 01. Au/fuhrung zu r .. li.ier"," (.-\'Ih<lik
de>   29).
7. s..... ""p. clupl<r l. "Pe"ep'i"".nd Communiw io n: Tho.- Roproduction of FOHn>:
in Luhm.nn. A.rl ou So<i"1 Sf'I ......
s. ' The,efore. "'.<"fI though 'ho po"",.iv<Il ... in a product of fi n< .n .. in'<tl'ion.!.
i, mu>! , till not ...... m in'en'io",,): i.e .• fine.n m",,' h ... the look of n>lure even
t hough we Of. collKiou. of i, .. . n. And 0 produc' of an 'ppe'" like n"ure if.
t hough w< find it '0 .gree quite punc< wi,h ,he "d .. ,Iu, h.-o to be followed
(or ,he produc' '0 beeo",," wh., i, i. intended '0 be. it d"". not do '" pa in".kin!#.
In otho.-r word .. ,h. ocademic fo rm mu>l not >how: mu>! be no hin' t n., 'he
ruk """' hov<ring b.for. tho . ni.f. ey",.nd puning (.ne .. on hi. m<n'oI pow-
... (Kant. CrilUj'" of 'udgmrtrl 1'9371. '74 1§45]). In tb.
of tho 'hird Critique. K.n, d •• uiM 'ho .peei.]     of tho genius who i • • bI.
to .. ",I, .. ,he .. pamdoxt">-th>1 i •• " hrough which nOlu .. giv .. ' he ru]. '0 . ft "
(l74 i§46j).
9. s..... "Gb.,.diebildend. Nochahmung. " in Mori". lI'erke. " Sli4/f. Such l"',aJoXl"Ie.d
th< ..",hetic and ,m, emefj;ing .n'hropok>gicol di",our ... '0 "I"'nd their defini-
tiOn! of ,he · ulKonoeioU!".,.n .... .. uninten,ional inton,iolU. unl.wful
unn.,ural na'ure. <1e. hou ... For a more detailed>i. of Mori,,' • • n"'-
gmiu •• ,he p ... Jox<> i, inyol .. >. md ,b.i r unfolding. "'" Lmdgraf. - s.lf· forming
5e] ..... "
lO. Lnhmann. ' WeI,xnnst: LJ.
Il. A. V"oI. pu, i,. "By !,"Oing d .... per th.n tru'h. '0 indic .. ion anJ the I.w. of i" form.
ISrencer· Brown] h •• provided .n oemunt of COmmon ground in which both
logic .nd 'ho ."nctu« of any univ .......... a.db !. 'hn' providing. (ound .. ion
for a gonui"" 'hNry of g<n .. .1 ' y>tom,· (-A C.o!<ulu. for Sclf· R<fo«nc<." 6) . The
difference b.tweffi tru,h claim' . nd 'he form c.kulu, i. ' hat "",.ITlffi" .bou, tru,h.
t b. world . .. ali,y. n co ope"'to with . ign. 'hat ., ",me poin' mUS' b. und .... ood ..,
'<"pr"",n'ing (or f. iling to "pro .. 01 ) ",ha, ,hey ."emp' '0 designat •• whil. Spt"ncer·
B",,,·n·, c.ku]"". oper.t ing wi,h Jistinction and indica'ion. con>!ruct. what ,b.).
<>b.e .... (on this poin' """ .1", Simon. "M .. hemo,ik und ErLmn'ni .. • .. p. SSff.). For
• more oxton.i .. di",w..ion of tb. epi.tem<>iogic..J and <>n'ok>gic.1 implication. of
Srenc .. ·Brown·, Ll..., of Form .nd • "'pon", to some of it> cri,ic •• """ Schilt , ;n
this volum •.
12. Luhmmn. ' Wd,xun": 1&-').
' J , Luhmann', mod.!, of <oU's<, i. nDl,he only one th., miff 0'" Kki>t', d.=,iption of
Mi"be,u', 'f""'Ch citeJ abo .. , I\dow. I will quotr. numoo, of .... mpl<'> from .....
mu,ici. ", ",ho d<>eribe 'he nwive p,oe ... in '''''1 .imil .. t.,-m"
'4, Luhmann, Arr '" a Social System, 20J-4,
lj. Ibid .. 202. Th. ideo of. compkte ",t ur.,.,n of program and anwo,k mirror> Mo-
,itz'. [Q,mulo'ion t hat tn", artworh cannDl be d <><Tii>eJ beau .. th<y .... perf.d
d.=,i plion. of th<mod v<'> ("",. il ,;. d", vollwrnrTlCIl 'ten Ile>ch ,cibung.n ih,.., ",Ib"
,indo [W<rl.:<. 2:5871). Th. p'''''imity of Luhmann , • modd '0 ,,"'-eightomth-c<"l1t ury
form.llizatiom of .n the qu<">tion ifthi. modd con be u..J to de.c,ibe th o
provocation. of twonti.,h-cen,ury . nd contemporary an, J will mum to ,hi. qu<>-
,ion below.
\6, The point i, not th .. the .ni>t c.n""t p,roetermine>. ide ••• form, . meJi ••
p"r:sp<Ct i .. >. "yI ... ote. that h. or >he w.n!> to us< or common' on with . wo,l of
.n, it i. merely th .. ,uch p,,,m.,ermin. d facto," rema in d."",nt> that ,h •• rtwork
us<> fo, it> self-programmi ng. It go<' withou' ... yi ng th., Luh man n', con<q>1ion
of.rt i. more compfdl<n, i,'e . lun the on ... peel I .ingle oW he .. in o,de, to foc",
on the rok of contingency onJ imp"'''.,'';on in the neative proc<>. fo, modem
(ra,h", t lun p,emodern) .rt.
'7. Spn-.cer-Brown uoo.,r>unru hi> c.lculu> in >.imil...,- 1Orm>a> self-fefo ... nti.>llycJo..d-
,h .. i .... . con>trnction 'h" create. ,.,he, tlun rep,.,.,nt> • H. not .. that
tho calculu. d .. ....Jop. iu own program. ",hich i> ".I Cd only fo, this p;>rt icul .. wo,k.
In the I.."t p.ragr,ph of hi> introduction '0 tho 1969 «ii. ion of La,.., ofFD,m, he ..1. -
.. ,;b.. hi, poo;t ;on ••• utho, of u,,.., off'or", ;n the .rt;,tic term. , ugge!l.,J .bove,
Spence, -Bm"n '<)e<" . lmo".tIl outho,i.l .... pon.;bili ';. •• claiming th .. wha, he
w,ote down "wrote i .... lf.· ,ha'after a con'in!,,,,n' bq;i nning, h< w •• mordy f"'pon-
.ible fOf ,be imtrumm"l I.obo, of constfucting 0 = ,d tha, h. hopes i, cleaf and
conci ... In 'ho pref.ce to 'ho \994 roi,ion of LiI..., of Form. Spenc<"f-grown , ..
'hi> oxperiC"f\ ce to .n. Citi ng tho n..., -emp; ,ici" H",mon von Holmholtz. he
mol .. the poi n' th., tbe .ni.tic p,oee .. con>truet>           in<k"p<ndent of the
in ''''' tion. of ,I>< .n i>t, oopit< it> .. If -p'ey ammin g. Spenc<"f -I\",,,'n'. La w> 4 I'D,,,,
:U<. of cou".,. not • worl of .n, Whilo "" migh, comid" ,hem '0 be "int".,t ing."
,"'<"!1 ' be.utiful" ",co,ding '0 .rt istic "on<l.,d,. they ceruinly loel the ,'ory
",me of con,ingency that ch.,,,,,t,,,i,.,. much of modrrn .n.
18. The <,,", Olpl< f.;". another qu ... t ion (which i. beyond the PUl>"i<w of thi' ..... y)-
n."",ly •• he qu<">tion of >lyle. the ratioof continuit y.nd v.,i.,ion betw ... n diffe",nt
Y'" ,d ... d wOflu of .rt.
'9. Thi' conclu.ion i .. of <OUf"'. not to 'Y'l<'fTl' thoof)". FOf oumpl •• J"pi'e
tiling. d« id rol)' .nthropocentrk v",wpoint . G.Mme, conclude> hi ... say on 'he
"Releva nce of H.amy" by remorking t h" the ' p<rfe<t exl"' ,iena of.n anwo,k
i> ,uch th .. one on"",lf adoring ,h. tot.ll <lise, .. ion of tbe octo,,, th .. 'hey
do no. promote thorn,.I, .. , but in""d ""ole wi 'h .I"""t inYOluntary mattor-of-
cou""n", the WOfk. it> compo<ition . nd it> coherence" IDi.
Erf:ilirung .. KUOlt"",le. i>1 "". dol! man gera.!o YOf de, Diwotion J", Al touf"
mitll<wuoo.,ru ng >lohl: J,g Ue .ich nicht .. lb" .. igon, ""ndorn d •• Work, .. in.
Kompo.ition unJ ",in. inn«o Kohiirenz bi. ,ur ungewoU",n Sdb"'·er"'nJlichk<' t
.vu,;"-",, ) I /)i<: AhualjlM Jes Sch6","". 691.
'0. Th. I." h", ree.,; ... J much ""ontion from Jeconstruct,,,, , ..   of KI6,,'. """ k.
H,m.cher'un,de "0 •• !!eben der Omlcllung, " fo, .xample, Kleist'. de-
.nd .. -comrooilion of th. word Zuflli/ (coincidence ) in 0 .. miolic ... m.ntic, . n<!
.... !TIIt i,·o n01. wh ... Fall. fall",. ,u",,,,,,,,nf"II<II (fo.ll, f.ll ing, f.ll ing togOlher j , .Ie.
combi ne in w.y. th.t '''g< coi ncidenee .. ,   ovent" that "bring. to f.1I"
the "'p' .... nt.tiono.l funelion of 'p«Ch ( "0.. &'ben de, O.r>tellung: ISfi.-571.
" . -Tho novol .ut hont"'''''' il",1f by foregroundi ng the diff<rorK. betw«n fict ion
and ""lily "'ithin the fiction. In other wo,d •• in cont r." to traditional n"roti", ••
the qU<'l lion of"" (u'er".! reforenc.) i. defined in term. of Ih. un ity of Ih.
difIoreoc< between .. If- anJ oxternal .. foronco" ( Roo.rt" -'df-Refo,..,nee in 1ito..-.-
tu .. : ..., ). CI,;" how .uch '''''ntry figur ... h,pe Sh.k<>pe,,'" A Mia,u,""".
Nig"!', Omm, (fo, th.t Yery ",.",n ..... ,hould wmKlOf it • ' mod<rn" r/ay) .n<!
point> (with Robe,I.) to the "",,ond-order """'",.Iion. ,lut are m,d. po"ibte by
.uch m.n<uver" m.king literature in p.rticular """ <pi"emological d",ic< for in-
tormin.bly doferring the Ioc.tion of. n ultim ... pe"pe<th'e f,om which ,h. be-
ing of thing.> could be thought to be known oneo and for all-ICI.,i«, Pool"um"n
'-2. I om following to., nition found in I'i=o.,r, /)i< Mu,il in Ge.roit:hk und G<-
g<nwa.l, Tho <ocyd<>p«li. off,,,, • lengthy mtry on the hi"ory of impro,'i .. tion in
'-3. E>1. rh.mmor. 5po"'anrow Owrflo .... a,ul Rrnvjf)'ing RaY'> 9. It i .... fo to ... ume
tlut Kk i" w •• f,miliar ",ith tho fi,,, compteh"".i", "udy of the n>lute, hi>lory •• nd
.esth<!ico of improvi",tion- n.mely, f.rnow'. "Ober d", lmprovi .. toten" (On II><
impro,·i .. ,,), first pub/ i""'" in ,So, in tho New: o.Ul,,"' M<TI:u •. Tho text pon"i!>
tho ltali.:m .n of impro>' .. t ion in te,m. of . n .",th .. ics of goniu •• nd enthu" .. m,
.mph •• izi ng not only tl>< t",hn""'" .kil], n..,.jed or the 'pon1>"" ity of p,,,,,,,nt.t;"n.
but in I"'rticular ,0., immeJiKy of this p""t ry, it> . bility to "impi'o dit<><1ly· the
>oul of ,0., li".n .. (...., esp. J04).
'-\. E"" .. , "The Co>mopoli"n Improvvi .. to .. ," 157.
25. In IN .... lduaii"" ok> SchDn,", G.d.m .. addr ...... imp,mi .. tion only onc.--""meiy.
toexplain how tl>< unity of th .. "work;, .. ", bli.hod through. ""rm"""utic oct th ..
con"i,ut'" Ih. ident i'y of ,I>< wo rl: by und." .. nding it..,. unit. Impro>' •• llioru
,how lhi. m ... t .ff«l;veiy. o.,.pite tl><i' floelingn= w. rffogniz< th"", in thoir
"i.ton« .. "work."; otherwise we could r.ot judgo thoirq u.!ityor d;'tingui.h ,h.m
from me .. flng .. eXOfci"" Ill).
26. From thi. I"'''P«';'''' ••• n..,.j no' .hor. the cultural con .. ,,,t;'m exp'''''''', for
• ..,mple, by Gioi" con«m for tho future of j.el. Noting"" fr.gmen,. -
tion of "yi<>. Gioi. f .. " that 'tho> of piurali.m threaten to coli.Jps< in'o t he
une.,;" of ... /ativi,m" I llt. Imr<rf<el 74). for all it> impo"'n! contribu-
tion> to tho Itudyof ,;..u, Giob;,:. booL cleorly 1 ... 1<" conc<,!," th." ","ould allo",' him to
.pprwch the improvi .. tion.!.n ofj.>u •• p.rt of a brooder tendency within modem
on' •• ",lution. In'' of chalJonging tho •• "hoti< ,,,dition "'00" cone<p" f,il to
>ccount for the ,p<Gfici'i ... of this improvi .. tion.! ,n form, Gioia prol"&"t .. on
underst.nding of jn' in term. of ninOl«'1lth-centory ..,sthetic> of g<niu. tlut osk..
u. to igno ... this .n form'. "imperf""'ion, · .nd 'pp" ",;"t< improvisation .. · ,he
pur ... t exp ..... ion ponible of to. .rt"'t'. emotion •• nd f .. ling>· (8J ).
>7. If one> ho", much improv",.t;on h •• be<:ome 1"" of to. modem per-
formi ng:uu .nd how much the tffhnico'! .nd moteri'! •• peets of .rt production
h .. ·• l>e<n oxpoo.«! in the twentieth century. it mu" com< "" • '"'l'ri", th.t the idol -
iution of the orti!l -g<niw h •• nO! diminish«l. At Ie""t within tho POP"!." disco",,,,
on .rt, tb. ide> of the . rtist-geniu. " ",,.in •• vi.bI. COlK<pt to exp)"in the croati,'o
proc<». Even :uti.1> woo «pli<itly col"""" ront in g<1Ky, m.ot<ri.11 ity. or the t« h n ical
"p<"Ct of tho cr""livo pro<e., """" to profit from the myth of tho goniu.. Ono nN.'d
only think of tho .u ... that , urround, Bebop gn ... , uch .. Cha rli. P.",,, or lohn
Coltm"" ,he r«ent mov;" celebrati ng lem-Mich.el l\uquiat Of I.d"",,, l'oILxI<, the
IegonJary .tatu< . nrib",«Ito lo .. r IIew, Ole. Tho continu«l popularity of .uch im-
pro", .. tion . rti." GOnnot be«himpl)" on the N>'" of theirexc<ptio",,1
Their .. " "atw .nd its .. "ox;"t .,n with the ide. of goniu. >I. mor< likol)" . ",.ult of
the mod('ITI-d.y ""<ptio" of .rt by .he m ... mroia. The moJorn m«l;" ",v""".rt
almo .. exdu.ivcly from .n .nthropocentric per>P<'<tive. It i • ..,fo to .»urn< thot the
. n 'y".m i. not prot",ting'g;lin .. t his mi''''pr<><"nlOtion bKou .. . rti". and the . rt
')"lom', i""titutio", profi. «onomic.!l)" from the comm..-ci. lit.otion of iu h""".
28. l'i><hor-1Khte argue> that ,nto t he u .. ',*>" culture w.' urtLk",ood .Imo.t
d u.iwly .. 1<xt. Only in t he '990' d"", . tow.,d .n unde"".nding
of culture ... penoITll.nce thot .110"" t ho ac..!emic pur:.uit of art .nd
of peL"formativo "pee" within .n in g<>ncr.! (,.., .. p. ,hlh<lik d« f'<rfomrnlimr,
19. Citing tho ournplo of ",h.t to him """"ed to be a doth rack th .. wa> orr.,«1 wi.h
groat err«t ••• WQrk of .n, G.J.:.m., argu ... t lut - the cre.t ion of err<Ct. '" the pri-
m:try   of conl<mpor.ry art " (I n .. in., Wir!:ung und aI. d""" Wiriung. dee
'" .inmal w ... lu. os .. in. Bestimmth. it) (Vi< .-Iklu"iilojf d" Schon"" JJ ).
}O. Gumbr«h"USb'e,,,h:u onHompare thise'perien<. with Nictnch.-Honc<ption
of tho l.lionj">i. n experience. They....-m to be . ble to b",ch at te ... t<mpor.>,ily tho
><p.,.,io" bet",,,,,,, , ub;":" .nd th . .. poration betweon ,ubjt>ct anJ ob;":t ",orld,
bet,.-.. n """''''''r ,nd ob",,,,..J ("Epiphany of I'OITll: J66).
jr. Ibid., .1\9.
J1. s.., Schiltz in !h", volume for. more <>1<n.ivo discu";o" of tho connKtLon betW<ffi
ope",m . nd form. A. he poin" out, Spenc<l -Bwwn". operation.l;"m al -
low. u. to account for sdf-rer"",nlially ope.-ating .y"om. ·con.i"ing of ope,.,ion.
th.t take thei, own ",.ull!'" b ... for further oper .. Th"", .,0 fon", t lut
·in-form· 'hem .. I, .... • (,6S). The concept of"in-form.tion· ., d"'elopeJ by Schilt<
!inm. <>peci.lly .pt to doscribe the fOITll finding/cre"i ng proc..., t lut marh the
..,If-programming of .n.
JJ. -lhe improviser make • • • ucc .... ion of choic .. in p<rformon« which c,m",' be
er • ...d. >0 ... ·erything 1,)11. do<> wi,hin the p<rfom,.nco mun be incorpo",ed in'o
tbe ",ook-. Thi. invol ...... on .u"",iv""e .. '0 the p,.o<n, momen' • .., thdt cre.tiyj,y
i •• ""ponS<" '0 ' he hero .nd now. 'hough ,hechoic .. ",.ode by ,he improyj"" are
in .. it.:Jbly influonced by 1"''' oxperion« of improvi>ing" (Smi,h .nd bo,n. Impro·
I;""",". '6).
)4. Ilerliner. 1"lri"i;"E in 1= '9'.
J5. Gioi,. Th, lmf'<,f«1 Arl. 60.
36. Ilerliner. T"hi"ki"g in JIIZZ. 193""94.
J]. Fi>chor ·lich,. ""'" the no" ion of. 'pe<:i,) rd.I! io n.hip betwom ""torund .udien«
."hee""tr') function of p<rform.nce art .nd unJe"t.nd"he mt><km (po.H9j(l')
"1"''''''''' lo ..... rd co nl ingeney as exp'"".i,.., of ,he explicit int .... t to - Feed bad
loop>" ond thwt " ..   mtopoietic 'y,,.n,,, th .. can no longor be inter-
rupted or controlled." That i .. ,he r«:ogniZ<"> • ",hift from the !"",ible cont rol of
• ')">tem to • 'pe<:i,l modu, of ,utopoie>i' in Ih.ate, production • • ince the 196<>0
(-Mit dor p<"rformativen Wendo in don ..rnl.iger )ahren ging eine neue H.ihung
gegonober tie, KonlingeR< einhe,. Sie wurtle nUn Uberwiq;md.b !ledingung d ..
Mopichkeit von Auffuhrungen nicht nUr ''''''pt ien. 50ntlem .usJrtlcklich beg,ilEt.
D •• Intor....., richtcte , ich ,xplizit .uf dio f,,,INri· Schleif •• J. .. Ibstbe,uglich ...
• utopoietioch .. S)"11<m mil priruipiell offenem. nicht vorhe""g\>.rem
"",, .kh durrh In"enicrun!;>'tr.tegicn .. ·ede""<i<:hlich unt.ror",hen noch gelidt
"euem 1aJ>t. Dabei y<nchob ,ich d .. Intor""", von ';n .. mOglichen Kontmlle d ..
Sy>I<m. zu oinom be>onderen Mr Autopoi .... " [rI,tlt,t,k J,., Prrfo,mal''''''.
33. De>pito hi. oxp<"rti", rq;.rdi ng j.ou p<"rform,mc<>. Gioi.1 n"v("fthd ... odd. tho fol-
lowing: " much- if not m"'t- j.ozz i. boring _m."
{Imprrfccl Art. 1091_ .tatement that. I would 'p<"alu mo ... to tho difficulty
of p.ychic 'r>1""" to .u"ain tho <Jlp<"rienc< of pr"",nc. without di .. ,"ction than to
t he intric"",",. of j.ozz .. on . rt fo rm.
)9. -r.. goht ihm .Iso Jarum. tlem Korper yergl<ichb .. parodigmatioche Vo.i!ion
zu ye"ch.ff • ." wi< dem 'f ext. an,t:m ihn unter dom 'f oxtp.radigm. m .ub.umi .... n.
D ••• ben 0011 dnllq;r iff </nbru;mc",lVerkorperung lei".n. I'J- .. off"", ein "'-"\1<">
methodi.<:h"" Feld. in dom der philnomon.le Korp<"r. d .. In-tler-Woh-
Sein d .. M.n",hen al. !ledingung tier Mopichke it jq;Iich<r kul,ureller Produktion
('gllriert' (.'Kher-lichte. ,(,,/,,1ik .I", l',..fom",' ; .. m. 'S}; my tr.n.I.,;on).
40. Gumbr<ocht. -Porm ",ithout M.ttor." 587.
4'. for on ,,«.llent hi"oriral :KroUn' of notion. of body . nJ in anthro.-
pologic.1 th«>'1 ..... Coord ••• "Embodimmt .nd Cultural Ph<"flomenology."
42. Hubert and Stu ... Dreyfw .nalyze M.rIe.u-Vont,'. of embodiment d"wing
on ' he model of neural networlu, - According to ,he .. model .. memori .. of 'pe<:ific
,itn.tion •• re no' >1oreJ. R,ther. the connfftiom betw ... n 'neuron ..... modifi.J
by .uc<.,.ful behavior in .uch. w.y th.t the ",me or ' imil..- input will the
,,",,,,,,or 'imiL" out pUt" ("The Ch.lleng< ofMorte.u-Ponty·. pftenomenology: li S).
Li'" Gumbr"'ht, Ihey rel.lo Ihe acqui, ilion of up"'rl i .. 10 theoxrerience Je.c ribed
by alhlel"': · When ewryday coping i> \,'Oing woll . on< OXreri<Il c"" somelhing lih
wh.t .thleto. c.ll flow. or rlaying out of their head •. 0",,'. :Kti"i ly i>
goar«! into the dema nd, of t he , it ... tion" (ibid., Ill).
4). Ibid" "S,
44. Dre)fu. m d Dr<}fw< distingui. h variow; .tage> of . kill "'qui, itio n from tho novie. 10
the "'p"' rt . hpoert>---<:ho .. pl.)'o", driver .. pilot<-----flo longer n.,."j to think through
mmplox   pro<......, bm . nticipate .nJ .ct intuili .. ly.
Communication versus Communion in Modern Psychic Systems
Mall/rmla, Lulml<llUl, mill Cognilil'c Nrllrology
Contemporary t",hnological society dependson securing consensusabout time.
Social complexity demand, the ordering of a huge array of actions carried oul
ov .... a distan,," 100 great for direct communicaTion, Timing compensat .. for the
absence of communication; temporal mea,ure, independent of
perien,es form structures against which activiTie, can be synchronized withouT
dir"'T conn"'Tion, The demands of global timing also require the transcendence
of merely local or naturdl temporal marh" ,uch a, harvest, tides, sun, and
moon. Since the .ixteenth century, the .. ancient rhythms have been progro,-
sively displaced by abSTract, precise, and ponable measures to accommodate
modern dispersion, and multiplicity of '·iewpoint'.
The necessiTy of temporal consensus would naturally Trnd To r .. ult in the
problemaTilaTion, even pathologization, of condiTions that produer temporal
confu,ion in individual" For functional coord ination of modern society, the
temporality of social systrm, muST hold sway owr The subjective time of indi -
,'idual psychic system, (in Niklas Luhmann'. terminology). One instrument
for maintaining a synchrony between indi"idual, and social     is autobi -
ography. On the one hand, autobiography is the moot perwnal and individual
of hisTories. But it. narrative articulation, whether systematically expressed in
public works or not, i, wown through the linear measures of modem social
time, and this interpenetraTion is on. major re underscoring its fun<lion
in th. d"'elol'ment of a panicular kind of .. If, a modern self both opposed to
and integrated with a modern society.
Howe",r, some form, of 'UbjecTive experience are difficult To spread out
against independent mrasures of ,ocial time---for e:cample, hallu(inatory ex-
perie"" .. or lapse< in memory. The temporality of psychic 'y,tems is itself de-
pendent on Thr enormomlycomplex interrelaTionships of neurologicalsy,tem,
and their rm'ironmrnts, and the .. sometimes run awry from social tim. in way'
thai defy accuhurdlion. I will discus., three delibe rately selO"Cted ."ample. of this
di'junction here. The phenomenon of the phantom limb, the confu,ion, of
traumatic memory, the per>istence ofth. dead in mourning- all present forms
of t.mporal disruption where past phenomena manifest themselves a, present.
And all three haw been objects of a variely of modern therapeutic endea,·ors.
However, the", three sit uations foml an unqui et "'ries. esp«ially in li ghl of
recent neurological advances. The understanding of phantom limbs and trau·
m.ali, memory has increased , ignificantly as a result of a huge leap in knowledge
about how Ihe brain works. But the ca", of mourning must be exempl from thi s
understanding, ,,·en if, throretically, more advanced neurological knowledge
mighl form the basis of alleviating its pains.
Why. in Iheoretical term,. is mourning 3 parti cularly anomalous case in
this series! The answer, I will argue, has 10 do with what Luhmann calls the
functional latency that grounds the intffpenetration of social and p'Ychic sys-
tems. ' Psy,hic systems. consisting ofinner experiences. are closed with resp«t
to each other; thi' dosure is the basi' for communication and, in turn. for the
social s)·stem, preci"'ly because il sets up the compen .. ting nec .... ity of rely·
ing on behavior to indicate inner experience, 10 oriem psychic sy'tems to each
other. If Ihe experi.nce of each p,ychic sy'tem were not hidden and dosed off.
the social system- and rommunicatioll--would be unneces .. ry. V.t in some
respeas---<J.nd this is a departure from Luhmann---beh.viors do not ",em 10
be so much the basis for communication as the sourer of contagious affect. a
communion rather than a communication that suggests psy,hic system closure
is not absoluu but ,·ariable. Certain form, of temporal disruption offer mo·
ments where the formerly constituled closure of psychic syslems shift, so that
psychic   ) ~ t e m s in cenain respects merge. forming a system that consists of a
multiplicity of psychic syslem,. This ,hift in the identity of Ih. s)"Stem brought
about through a simuhanrous perception and experience of another as oneself
dissolves the slructural interpenetration of social and psychic systems. Phantom
limbs, trauma. and grief, I argue, compri'" a ",rie, in which the treatment ofth.
particular manner of the presence of the past p« to each condition teeters
from modern therapeutic measures intended to .. lvage narrative, linear auto·
biography for individual p'Ychic systems to a quasi · involuntary exploitation
of an opening between psychic syslems. I argue, ul timately, that the periodic
""perienee of , uch an opening might form a thnapy for modernity ilself, par-
ticularlyas it develop, more detail.d knowledge ofthe neurological subsystem,
that produce psy"hic life and as it develops more abstract and global synchro-
nies. To illustrate the point. I bring contemporary work on the brain togeth.r
with the s ) ~ t e m   theory of Humbeno Maturana. a foundation for Luhmann's
theory of ..xia] in order to consolidale a rede,aiplion ofthe  
disruption of psychic syslem •. I then consider Ihe work of Matu",n.·s partner.
F",ncisco Varela. and hi' colleague Natali e Dep",z.logether wilh the impl ica-
tions of the relatively rec.nt discovery of mirror neurons, as ,hallenges to th.
purponeddosureofpsychic I end bys uggeslingan imponant role for
loe.lily within a relatively d'lerritoriali,ed global modernily.
Humbeno M.lurana coinro the t.rm ".uropoiesis· a, the of stu-
dent" que'tion, concerning the nalUre of lif •. a I"'rsislem quest;"n in the hi,-
tory of biology. lndi"idual component, of living 'ystem>---their alom, and
molecul.s--in most case, have a neeting association with the Ii"ing emit);
they are constantly replenished and replaeed during metabolic pnxes .... and
such 'y, ofl.n grow and change in the colLrse of what is called lives.
Given Ihi' continuous nux of material elem.nts. what i, it w. (alia single lif.1
What i, it Ihal persist. as long a, a cr.ature retains it' identily and depart' at
th.t idenlity's disintegration? Amopoi"is, literally "self-making: highlight'
the acti" ily of living system,. not the 'tabilily or im-driance of any ranicuiar
component or material. Thi' activity (OnSiSiS of a circular relation,hip with
the amopoietic 'y't.m, both affected by and affecting of the
environm.nt, continuously and recursively. And il i, thi' circular patt.rn of
a.'livity that MalUrana designale, as the hallmark (haracl.riSlic of Iif •. Thi'
continuous acti"ity bolh implies and requires a drnami<: environm.nt and a
dynamic sySl.m; {hang. is nol merely a charact .. i'lic of amopoietic syslem,
bm a neee""ry Ira it.'
Malurana a""ribed "cognition" to all.mopoietic ,)"t.m, by d.finilion: cog-
nition is Ihe li>'ing being', c.pacily to sen,. Ih",,. fealures ",f the en"ironment
to which it respond, with self-maintaining a{tivili ... Such a system',
domain· conSi it ule< a particular   of reali ly, a sp«trum of .ali.nee.
Ther. may be availabl. to an observer a gi'-en environment that exiSi
omsid. Ihe cognitive domain of an ob,., .... d syslem. It may ev.n be the ca,.
thai ,uch features are condition, for the continued inlegrily of Ihe observed
system. MOrf{}wr, the wry specifi cation of a "'system" and an "en.'ironmem"
i, 10. given observer. The ob,.,ver i, a syslem. too, and capacily
to discriminate other and .nvironment , would depend on f.atures of
il' cognitive domain. Funhermore. each cognitive domain is dosed:
it cannot ,hare informal ion with or tran,fer informal ion 10 other cognitive
domain, Ihal also dosed to ii, it (an only, Ihrough bthavior. re5()-
nances wilh other syslem,. Finally, a primordial form of temporalily is basic
to aU<: 'y'l.m, as Maturana de:scribe. them. All such 'yst.m, are. as
he PUI, ii, · predicti,'e"; they h .. ·• a seleelive ,"alion lo", .. rd the
b .... d on the p ... t. The principle gowrning thi s ",lection is "what h ... happened
before will recur," This principle follow. from the dynamic quality of auto-
poitsis it",lf; some , tability- Ihat is, some pallem of recurn-nce-mu.t be the
case for Ihere to be minimal integrity in the .utopoietic system. A completely
chaotic environment could not suslain autopoiesis; by definilion, no pallerne<!
recurrence of fealur", nece.sary 10 life could exist.
The nervous system and the 'ptem, that .ustain it form Maturana', "hief
domain of im''''ligation. Th"", .y"em' feature. illustrate principles of many
complex sptem. composed of other systems. such ... the system of society.
The ne,,'ou. system consist. of neurons; it i. itself a component of Ihe
of the organism, and each of th"", systems' d",ignation as such depend, on an
obse",er, And each of the", 'ystem., including the 00"''''". has distinct cogni-
live domains that are not only closed to each other but differently constiluted,
notwithstanding their lightly couple<! imerdependencies. The neural ceU's cog-
nilive domain con,iST.of elfftrochemical fealUr ... th.t initiate an energy tramf ..
10 other neuron. or not. depending on bolh the elfftrochemical ,haracter of
the environment and the neuron'. own electrochemical character al a given
moment. The ne",ous s),stem, made up of nemom of specific 1)'1"", responds
to a panicobr c.tegory of ,timubtion; optical .. nsory system. for ",,"mple.
responds to photons; skin receplors respond to pressure, temperalUre, and 50
forth. But in addit ion, the organism with a ne,,'ou. system i. afforde<! a special
possibility for increased freedom. Wilhin cfTtJin thr",hold limits. it may modify
iTS respon'" to sensory input based on perusal of internai rep .... ntations. such
as memories. For this to be true, it must be the ca .. that ",nsory input has the
capacity to pr.sent a specific domain in whi,h il is possible to offer a giwn
obse,,'er options from which to sele<l a "spon ... Alt hough the systems that
suppon thi' possibility may be entirely deterministic- 'lIld indee<l from a more
remote viewpoint all   inyo!.'ed may be deterministic- from the point
of view of the system capable of experiencing its own internal representalions.
the environmenl offers choices.
Only such systems, unlike thoselhat sustain it. "haw" a past and not just a
predictive orientation. They encount er phenomena not only through the on-
going present events of the .. nsory system, but. also through the producTS of
Ihrir own internal proc"""s, It i., therefo .. , pos.sible for such systems to inter-
rupt attention to the environment; they can attend 10 themselves in order 10
det .. mine fealUres that call for notice. In so doing, their cognilive domains are very different from the neurological subsystems that suppon them.
Funhermore, through the development of communication it becomes possible
for one organism to orient behavior in other with similar capacities.
MalUrana---Jjke Luhmann after him-insists communication is not Ihe Iransfer
of information. Because of Ihe autopoietic do.ure of each obserwr·. co-gnitiw
domain, Ihere i. no Iransfer. [nslead, language has an orienting function; it
works as an environmental cue to all<nd to a sp«ific subset of po"ibi[iti ... A.<
such, it depends on   without which .pecific ullerances remain ambigu-
ous. This ambiguity i. nol a .hortcoming of communication. II allows a finite
repenoire of .igns to ref •• to a nearly infinile ,""rielyof circum.tanc .... Lmguage
facili tales coord i nalion of internal representations in external I nal steer
conduct and provide il with meaning.
For present purpose., [ want 10 sire" Ihatlhe orienting function oflanguage
also has a role internal 10 Ihe language u'itr. II i. pari of what makes possible an
autobiographical self. More generally. the relalivily of ";'''"J'Ointlo Ihe conslilU-
tion of .ystems and environment. permit' a ralescription of autobiographies
Ihal modem individual. take for gramffi as central to identily. Clearly, aUlo·
biography emerges from an interpenetration of psychic and ,ocial .ptems;
individual, peruse internal representation. of experience in lerm, acquired
from social context, ... pecially language. The organization of aUlobiography i.s
lemporal, aniculated according to measures eslablished in social 'ystem., ,uch
as calendar and clock, eYen if Ihi. only serve, to highlight a distinci ,ubjectiv.
sensibilily. Such measure. struclure the examinalion of memol)' and assist the
task of ordering it. The linear projecti on oflhi' order into a paslthat deepens
into a darkne" beyond Ihe reach of memory maintain. autobiographical inler·
relat ionsh iI" and confirm. hi sl orical cohorts. predec e\.50!"S. and ," Ihat
may not be Jldrl of dirfft experience at all. Overall, autobiographical identily
re,t, on an astonishing range of interdependent temporalities: social construe·
lion, re,l on psy<:hic syslem. whose experiencal lemporalily i, "ariable, and
Ih= in !Urn resl on organismic 'ptem. with no lime excepllhe present--only
Iheir predicliYe oriental ions. The .imple. =mingly gi,'en and nalural experi -
ence of Ih,linear lime of aUlobiography depend. on Ihe obscurity, Ihe inacces-
sibilily, of the complicalfd weaye of nested system, that enable il.
Alteralions in organi.smic subs)"len" can radically affffithe experience of
time. This ordinarily happen. nightly, when dreams manifesl as ulernal rep-
resentations whal are in reality internal. The absence of tonm. the inhibition
of mu><ular rno\"ement, pr ...... llIs the enaction of perceptions thai in waking
states provide a conlinual reinforcemenl of the dislinction between inlernal
and external representalions. Con"emionally, dream ,,'ent, are excised from
autobiographY----,fxcept m dream" They remain, for Ih. mo<l pari , easily dis-
tingui.shable from real autobiographical ewllIs. BUI olher evem, in the life of
the indi"idual also confuse distinclions belween internal and nlernal, pa'i and
210 LtNOA  
troubling both the .patial and temporal dimensions of the .ubje<:t of
autobiography. Phantom limb pain i.oneofthese, the puzzling persistence of
an absem bod)' part in th. pr.sent. The persisten ce of sensation in the vani.h.-d
limb;' along· . tanding hi>lorical puzzle; phamom limb. haw been the obje<:t
of psychophysiological inquiry and .peculation from amiquity. Throughout,
their presentation is de.crib<"<i., incom'enient, often painful, and sometimes
bizarre in its panicular manifestation,.
Hypothese. about the cause have run the gamut from purel)' physi(al to
purely psychologi(aI. In th. aftermath of the Ci"il War. the great number of
amputees produ(.-d a wfalth of .peculation about phantom limb acti,·ity. One
of the mo.t popular notions was that the scarred end of (ut nervous tissue in
the stump was the Twentieth· cemury p.y"hoanalysts oven to the presem
day have treat<"<lthe phantom as a product of mdancholy, the introje<:tion of.
lo.t part of the self. But ",entlr the work of neurologist V. S. Ramachandran
has illu.trated that an array of physiological 'ystem. contribute to the phantom
limb phenomenon. From an autopoieti( standpoint phamom limb pain might
best be regarded as an alteration in the way a number of embodi.-d 'y'tems
imerpenetrate each other, altering the cogniti,'e domain of ,.n50ry awarene ..
to the point that it comradict' knowledge of Ihe body's borde ... '
Phantom limb pain con,i't' offal,. ,.n50')" repom. hen though the .. is no
limb, the obserwr experiences the limb and, unl." inhibited by an act of wm.
re.pond, 10 those repo"' as if the li mb exi'ted. Simple denial of the sen50ry
data does no more good than denial of ",lid sel150ry data; the phamom ;. not
the result of insufficient con,'iction of the limb's absence. r ronicaily, as it turns
OUI, such conviction rna)" eYen help promote t he phantom. Ramachandran
de"..loped a unique therapy that e"Ploits the interpenetration of limb-related
ta<tile data to vi.ual data. Normally vi. ion confirm, "peCiS of body image
avail able to the eye. and of course the "i,ion of amputees normally confirms
the absence of the limb. Howe"..r, Ramachandran discovered that in the case
of the phamom, Ihi' reinforcement operates dysfunctionally. By confinning
the limb' s ab,.nce (or perhap, more ac(uratdy, by failing to confirm its pres-
encel. vision (an inhibit Ihe bod)'" updating of its own condition and thus
pani(ipate in cau,ing a failure to re"i,. the body'. map to refleci Ihe limb' ,
absence. Ramachandran thi' phenomenon through a deliberately
constituted illusion. He invent<"<l what he caUed a "'irtual reality box,' an .,-
s.emblage of mirrors Ihat reflected and refracted the real limb. doubling it into
i1510st mate. Movemem .,tabli,hed connection to the image: when the patient
flexed the real limb, the refracted image of the exi.ting limb mov<"<l a. well. Th;.
panern of enaclion and it> visual confirmation were suffi(iem to e,tablish a felt
illusion that the patient was mO"ing th.phantom, Thi. percei"ed experien ..
of "oluntarily actiYating the limb had in many cases a significant dfe<:t on Ihe
phantom's niSI en .. outside the box, generall y ameliorating Ihe eXlremity of
sen .. tion and in some cases d iminating the phantom all together.
Frustralion at the violations of autobiographical space-time comprised by
Ihe phantom limb indicates the autoroietic dosme of psychic S)'SlemS with
respect to organismic systems. One cannot will the phantom out of existence.
The phantom limb extend, the body's borde", into empty space, and it offers
as a perception that which aUlobiographical experience dictales must only a
m.mory. The past is that in which events h." . irre"ocably lo,t their eYent -ness
and confined to internal repr.sentation, sometimes suhje<:t to willed
re"all. Organismic systems do not ha"e a "past:' but ..... nts from organismic
systems crucially on the condition of psychic systems. And discoYering
Ihe cod .. that determine these ,'arious systems' interpenetration allows new
degrees of fr",dom in therapeutic assay •. An ob",,,.,, of such syslems such
as Ramachandran can manipulat. events on Ihe neurological Ie".! by ma-
nipulating   in order to affect perception in renain pallerned WdYS.
The success of such manipulations in turn ",.eals the nature of perceplion' s
int eraction wilh the new neurological terrain produced by Ih. trauma. In Ihis
case, il emerged that "isual interaction wilh a nonexistent limb affe<:ts whateYer
it is Ihal produces tacti l. sensations in Ihe phantom. The addition of "isual
sensory Terorts, ""en though fal"', initiates processes that subsequently alter
Ihe neurological basis of tactile sensation. in Ihe limb. dimini.hing Iheir
",ti,·it y.
For psychic systems, the proces, features an in"ened logic "isual ""idence
for the existence oflhe phantom reduces lactile ""idence for the existence of the
phantom. Reality for the psychic system is, in Ihe specific ca", of the phantom,
paradoxi,,"!; the limb is truly a phantom the rules of space-lime do not
apply, and it must Ix- exoKi",d through procedures that ha ..... no conne<:tion to
the felt experience of na"igating the world while maintaining bodily intesrity.
But despite the counterintuiti"e nature of the therapy. the amelioration of
phantom limb effe<:ts brings autobiographical self into closer corresrondence
with m .. sages from the body about it. borders, me""s .. only "psychic system
can receiw. In the process, theps)"hic system learn. to take its own complexity
into account and to u'" knowledge of organismic systems for functional ends.,
... 'en if that knowledg. prescribes acting in ways that contradict intuitions prl'Vi -
ously held as unquestionable.
Phantom limb. present psychic 'ystems with frustrating paradox .. but
do not disrupt the temporal identity offered by autobiography very deeply.'
Phamomlimb sufferers are not brought to question tM limb's nonexistence as
an autobiographical fact, they do not forget its loss as an event, Butlhe confusion
of aUlobiographical reality is arguably more profound when the trauma
dirKtly invoh'es the enormously complex systems responsible for imernalrep-
resentalions of Jutooiographicalexperience ilself, of identity- thai is, memory,
Traumatic memories, more descriptively ('"ailed "intrusiw memori .. " in the psy-
chologicalliterature, are those that beh",', like perc'1'lUaI.,,'ents than like
memories and thus directly disrupl the linear tim. of aUlobiographical hislory,
a lemporalily supported by the linear lechnologies of synchronizalion offered
by weial systems. The sufferer---{hat is, the experiencer of past events--has far
more difficulty achi"'ing a second-order stanc<' than the phantom limb suf-
ferer, In the latter, memory contradicts tactile semalion, but since th. memory
of the loss oflhelimb is nO! itself affec1ec1, Ihese laclil e sensations submit 10 a
kind of special case classification that the om.,rver can objecTify and treat as a
problem. But when memorie, Themsel",. behaw like rer,eptions, intruding
into the present as if they were real -time e"ents, psychic life iTself must become
the objecT of observation- seldom a possibility for Ihe Trauma sufferer bUT quite
possible for other obs., ... ", particularly psychoanalysts and psychologists,
although their obse..,'aTions are, in the mainstream, limited to beh",'ior and
communication of the trauma sufferer.
Like phantom limb .... arch, Trauma treatme nt has benefitecl from the view
thaT individual experience has complex neurological origins wherein an array
of systems form en"ironments for each other. "Dual representation theory"
in the cogniTi"e study of trauma structures inv"'tigation into posttraumatic
experiences in terms of conflicting sourc", of the internal representation ofthe
traumatic event.' A major feature of posmaumat ic stress disorder (PTso) is the
recurrenceof unwanted memori .. of the traumatic scene that erupt into aware-
nes, wiThout deliberate .. call ,' As has become a commonplace obser"aTion,
trauma proouc .. dis5OCiation of attention, yiCTims frequently repoft out -of-
bodyexperiencfSor an extremely narrow focus on a paTCh of skyor grass in place
of the general "ene. And experimentally, deficiTS in allention 10 the traumatic
event haw been conYincingly correlated with the incidence and severity of
posUraumati<: Sire". But mort' r .. ently this o!>sen:aTion h .. been refinecl: PHD
correlat .. with. particular di"ision of .lIentionallabor during the triggering
event , Dual representation theorists Ita"e identified two neurological 'ptems
for pfoce"ing <'vents Thai encoo. memorifS in two different memorysy,tem •.
Th. first, "erbally accessible memory (YAM), is responsible for autobiographi -
cal memory, a record of experience ThaT is context- rich and thus temporally
marked, It is also more a,."ilable to updaTing and correcTion by new, conS(iously
proce,sed experienc ... Due to Ihis kind of memory, for ",umple. knowle<!ge th.t
one" mugger W;lS caught and imprisoned can significantly decrease the sen .. of
unea .. Ih.1 formerly .«ompanied ncur, ion, out of the house. Thisae<e55 10
<leW knowledg. and Ihe fact thai such new knowl edge affe<u .molional ""'pon ..
to formerly Iraumatic en" ironment' reflect' the neurological . trueture, wilh
whi ch v A" i. alli ed. Ihe hippocampus and Ihe prefrontal conex, bolh relati"ely
rec.nt ... ·olutionary f •• tures thai play major roles in consolidating memori.s.
Thi' form of memory i, also likely to be isomorphi c with so-called dedarative
or explicit memory, such ;IS Ihe memory of lasl nighl" dinner or the capilal of
Oklahoma. in contrasl 10 impli cil or nondeclaralive memory Ihal comists of
skill, (how to ride . bicycle, how to speak).'
Alongside v .... and normally integraled with il. dual representalion Iheo-
,iSIS have identified situationally ac",,,ibl. memory, or , ..... . AM seem. 10
include implicit m.mory and 10 con, i'l largely of perceplual phenomena in
nond.darativ. form. II   not pro';'ct into Ihe hippocampus and cannol be
direcdy updated. Inslead of being , ubjecl lO direct dedarali,·. recollection, , ....
ope.ales in r .. ponse to en'·ironmentallriggering. Encounter> with perceplion,
associated with Ihose stored in ' A" provoke a raw, unmntextualized recaU, a
form of memory doser to phy,iological reexperience of Ih, originalew nt Ihan
10 Ihe memories we consciously peruse and ma nipulale. NOI surprisingly. , ....
is neurologically older. II has a close relation,hip 10 the amygdala, the brain
structure associated wit h negative survi,·al · relaled emotion •• uch as fear and
Th"", two ' y' lem. with Iheir different forms of recall relate 10 different
kinds of encoding data. \" AM narrati"e and ,· .. bal, , .... perceptual and often
predominantlyvi,ual. Thi. division oflabor has been Ihe ba,i, for a number of
n periment' thai .lIempl to determi ne Ihe way traumalic event, are encod.d
and 10 exploillhese differenceslherapeutically. Recently ",searcher, confirmed
. vidence that task.. drawing on SA", "isuospalial lask, such a, lapping a key-
board during Ih. nperience of traumalic malerial (a controUed , itualion such a,
a fi lm of a car cra>h l . ignificantly .-..:Iuer Ihelikelihood of ,ubsequent traumatic
inlrusions. Fun hennor., "erbal disl"'ction during the experience of Iraum._
dislracting conwrsation or "emal memory task-increases Ihe likelihood of
intrusions. Researche .. explain Iha I activit i., loading ' A" during
lrauma encoding reduce Ihi. memory '),>lem', respon,iveness 10 trauma per·
ceplions, and ... r .. ulil here may be grealer .eti vation of \' .... : contrarily,load-
ing v AM .... ilh verbal distraction, perhaps nol only wilh conwrsation but wilh
di,sociati," daydreaming. impoveri,he, the v AM encoding of traumatic evenl5
and mighl . nhanee the role of 'A". Because , ..... memories ha"e impo"erished
context and contexi markers St'rve 10 fix particular memories lemporally, the
grealer rol. SAM has in encoding everns, Ihe more ,ubje<:1 those event -memories
are 10 in"oluntary .. emergence Ihrough an array of environmental cue,.
Furthermore, reSt'archers were able 10 afff<t Iraumatic memory Ihrough Ihe
exploitalion of VAM and 'AM not only during Ihe original encoding, bUI al..,
during episodes of traumalic rf<all after the Iriggering e\"fnt.
Thi' nuancM, multiple-syslem approach 10 m.mory he"'ily qualifies the
idea thatlraumatic memory intrusions and OIher pathological markers of PHD
result from deliberale repr.ssion. To be sure, the dff<I' of "mental control"
of Iraumatic nperienc .. have been experimentally ,hown 10 correlate ,,"ilh an
uplurn in Irdumalic intrusion .. However, il would now appear that this correla -
lion may nOi be due to repression ilSt'lf, as in a Freudian model,,,, much as in
Ihe increased demand on v AM Ihal repression r'quir .. , a competing narrali,'e
intendM 10 snuff out Ihe narralive of Iraumatic experience.' Thu, it i, more
likely 10 be the case Ihal memory therapies a, lrealment of PTSD are nOi so
much encount.ring resistance toward the memo!)'", much as an impoverish-
ment of Ihe narrati,·. form at the lime of encoding. Furth.rmore, Ihere haw
been indicalion, that inducing non,'"bal perceplual la,ks during PTSD treat-
ment ,ignificantly after the encoding has more efficacy in reducing traumalic
symptoms Ihan lalk Iherapy.
1'0 one ..-ould wish PT'D ,ufferers to endure amiction wilh any more
euremityor duralion Ihan nec ..... !)·. AI the .. me time, how"'er, dual repre-
sentalion IhfOl)'" exploilal ion of a ",ond-order relation,hip of obse".alion 10
memory has more complicaled impli,ation< in the domain of P'Y,hi, syslem,
Ihan it had in Ihe.:ase of Ihe phanlom limb; the mechanical of anguish
by means of seemingly unrelaled lasks is ..,mewhal unSt'liling. Like the iro-
nies of Ramachandran', virtual realily box, vi,u"l -spalial lapping la,ks ..... m a
'Irange answer 10 th. form of suffering---and in Ihi' (ase Ih .. e is an addilional
.ffecti.·, dimension: Ihe obSt'",er of Iraumatic experience in anolher of len has
an .mpathic r"ponSt' . In fact, lrauma on a large scal.-Ih. Holocaust, the
collapSt' of Ihe Word Trade Center lOwers-has been Ihe occasion for a fonn
of social suffering that has itself be .. n deemed healing by ..,me wrilers. Such
healing utilizes the sympalhetic contagion of traumatic affect" dependent on
the heighlened .molional excitation of the Irauma ,ufferer, to resocialize the
lrauma. Thi. s)1"palhelic contagion in !Urn rests on Ihe continued lalency of
Ihe multiple neurological components of traumalic memory. " In olher word.,
the tangle of autobiographical time produced by the disrupled integrity of
"AM and SAM memory ilSt'lfha, a social .ffect; it appears to assi't con-
'Iituling an affeclive bond belween the trauma sufferer and thoSt' who li'len
and obstrve. To undo the latency of the dual ')"Iem memory endangers thi5
integration of psychi, and social system. in t his resp«t.
Yet it may be incorre<:t To characTeri .. this social effe<:T as truly social in
Luhmann', stnse. At lea>! a. it i. ordi narily discussed. empathy violate. the
premi"" of psychic sy,tem dosure. The experience of empathy i.the experience
of another. psychic condiTion 3< in some way one'. own. Of course. this appar·
ent communion of psychic systems has frequently been explained as imaginative
proj«tion or as the unthematized triggering of one', own memorie, Through t he
beha"ior of another. However, the di<cowry of mirror neurons in the primate
conex suggest. that t his explanation may be misguided, in a truly fundamental
sen>e, the body of anoTher can be experienced as one'. own without t he media-
tion of imagination.
Research ... discovered mirror neurons., a dassof motor neurons, in t he .arly
1990' ," They noted thaT a peculiar group of neuron< in the "entral premotor
cortex of monkeys fired not only upon the initi ation of the monkey' . own mo-
tor   They also fired when the monkey observed deliberate motor activity
in another monkey, an aCli"iTy . uch as reaching for a banana. In other words.,
these neurons fire both when the action belongs to t he home body and when
the a<lion i. that of another body. In the succinCT words of Cri. tina Becchio
and Cesare Bertone. these neurons "match t he sound or vision of 5"'!lr0'" else',
a<lion. onto t he ",bjed'. OW" repertoire."" So Th e other body'. viewed or heard
beha"ior is, with respecT To certain activities, one , own body'. behavior JI t he
neurological le\'eI; there i,. truly, shared experience. in t he sen>e that for the
mirroring monke)' t here is no other monkey at t his stage of cognition.
While the degree to which mirror neuron. account for inte .. ubj<"<:Ti,'e experi-
fIlCrs often described as sympathetic or empaThetic re mains to be determined,
it doe, appear, '" Becchio and Bertone argue, t hat they profoundly challenge
the t hesi, of psychic dosure t hat has been a cor ner>!one of epistemology and
ps)"Chology , inee Descartes. The dfe<:t of .uch neurological interidentification
for autobiography;', to say thele .. l. disruptive. I n the cast of the phantom limb,
t he effe<:t, of ob>erving the limb. of others reaching and grasping when one',
own corre>pOnding limb is missing might be pan ofthe reason Ramachandran',
visual restoration of t he limb in the "inual reality box works. But in a senst ,
to t he degree t hat mirror neuron. might account for thi, . what t he virtual
reality box restores i, not so much a consolidat ed autobiography as a hetero-
biography. Furthermore, more generally, the motor' sensory dualit), of mirror
neurons map< onto the a<livity/passivity duality that often appears at t he cor.
of phenomenological discmsion, of affe<:t and temporality. Francisco V"da
and Natalie Dfpraz have argued t hat the origin of temporality that constitutes
infr .. of   and .>O<ial time in a mierolemJlOralit), situ-
ale<! at transitional JIOint between prereAexiw and rdlexivt experience, a
JIOlar self-other in which self is other and other is .. If, a multiplicily in a state of
dlnamk lemion that pr..:e<!es .. cond-order cognilion. "This is Ihe manifesla-
tion ... of Ihe in .. parable presence of pa",ivity and agency," wrile Varela and
Depr.z. " Given thi ' analysi,. Ihe do,ure of psychi c syslems with respeci to each
other ,atherlhan precedes a primordial .hare<! temporality consisting
of embodied experience, an imlance of .. If-affection Ihal is indislinguishable
from oth.r-.ffe<:tion. Con'-ersdy . .>O<ial communicalion re.1> on communion'.
extinction, brought about by refleaion and psychic do.ure. BUI thai dosure al..,
brings wilh it a "waning of afhet," 10 u .. Fre<lric ram"",n's phras., a transfor-
nlation of Ih. polar 1<n.ion comprising Ih. multiplicily/unily of self-and-olher
into the relatively .talic dualily of .ubje<:t and obj":l, self and olher. "
Olh" bodies wilne"",d or heard trigger the state of anti -Canesian commu-
nion----and Ihi' understanding might help explain Ihe compelling embodie<!
quality of mourning. The wilne",ing of mourners in deep grief, e ... en by 'Irang-
ero. of len produces a profoundly powerful empalhy. And grief is a physical
experience for the mourner. The 10M of an intimale, a 10 ... " or dose family
member, lea"" in it, wake a variety of bodily movement. whose superAuity.
Iikelhal offeeling in a phantom limb. brings a sudden halting ache ,a condition portraye<! in Wiliiam Wordsworth', sonnet, "Surprised by loy":
Surprised by joy- impaliem as the wind
I wished 10 share thelrdnsport---<lh, with whom
BUl lhee, long buried in Ihe silent tomb,
That Spol which no vici",itude can findl
Thi. kind ofhabilual inclination loward Ihe dead, nol.., much described
a. indicaled by Wordsworth's language, summons an involuntary sympathetic
pause in Ih. reader. It is like Ihe aUlomalic reach aero", an emply btd, th.
dialing of a phone number that will mnnect to no one. that painfully frays the
aUlobiographicai fiLllion of the death al a JIOint in Ihe past. " These embodied
habits whose pt"rformancr is .., affectively mntagious .rr detemJlOralized and
do not disappear in s)'IIchrony with Ihelinear narrali ... f oflif. and death. On
the one hand, Ihe lrouble posed by the dead 10 autobiography may be captured
and mnfined by convemion, but, on Ihe olh .. hand, Ihe famous black page in
Trinr"", Shan,irmourning Ihe dealh ofr dr..,n Yorick signifieslhe impo"'ibil-
it)' of psychic 'yslem dosure in Ihis conlexl. Even if Ihese painful aUiomalic
mo ... emenl> toward and with the absent figure mighl be banished Ihrough the
exploilation oflhe VA" /SA" distinction. it is far from certain thi' would be a
popular therapy, and this i. not merely a matter of propriety. RatMr, it concern,
the bond of embodiment mediated by objffts of desire in the \'isible, audible
world, that, even when ab""nt. e',oke a multisubjective grasp and reach,
a ,imultaneous action and perception, acti"ity and pa"i"ity.
The state of mourning i, probably heayily invoh'ed with SAM, stimulated
by the recurrence of a'so<iated enyironmental features. by bodily habit and
automaticity. Rich in per<"ptions. tightly connected to emotional arou,aI, the
fffurrence ofth. dead in bodily acts is likely to be dimini,hed by eliminating
familiar context, by change of place. by modern geographical mobility. The
bodily manifestation of motive and emotion underlying intersubjectiYe com·
munion rel i., on ""n",ry connfftion to the phy'ical environment. Moderns
leave the triggers of per<:eptual aSso<iations behind or tear them down in fits of
renoyation and gentrification. Wordsworth, clearly the poet of sAM,lamented
the 10" of ancestral land, a, a cau"" of profound   and ffonomic disloca-
tion in the advent of the Industrial R,,·olution. " The ,igni!ican<" of locale in
Wordswonh', ""n"" is in""parable from its characlfr as the site of lons·term
communal ,haring. The connection of the dead to a panicular place, the fact
that "haunting" re<Juires a panicular location phrsicallr to the dead,
is often poignant1r illustrated by the complaints of displac.-d peoples. To cite
just one e""mple, one of the world', most ancient cultures. that of the Kalahari
Bushmen, is fast disappearing through the tribespeople's relocation into camp'
and towns. A \\',lShinglOn P05f at1ic!e ",entlr depicted the forc.-d transfer of
a \'itlage by the gO\'ernment of Botswana. osten,ibly to replace the Bmhmen',
hunting-dependent livelihood with agriculturdll'r.<:tices more compatible with
territorial confinement. As one woman reports. the ancestors communicate
their di'plea,ure in dream,. "You have lost us," her decease<! grandparent'
told her. "Why are you not next to us?"" Th .... grandparent,' dream appear·
ance i, clearly a poor ,ubstitute for their felt presence in a familiar phy'ical
Dual representation theory ,uggests that the strong attachment of tradi -
tional culture to the dead is more than a so<iai construction: it arise, from
the physi,al nature of embodied memory, strongly acti\'ated byaWKiatiYely
(harged em'ironmental cues. When environments change, these trigge" are
lost and the vi\'id feeling of the presence of the past goes with it. Geographical
displacement may diminish the intrusive effects of the past without explicitly
manipulating memory system, as ,uch. and it ha, a long-standing feature
of mooernity's global prog"ss. But from a second-order point of ,-iew, other
que"ions must be raised, to what deg .. does the persisting body of locale
anchor the connection between the bodi .. of tile so<iai beings that occupy it?
218 LINOA  
Mighl modern mobility weaken Ihe role of 'AM or of affe<:t generally? Perhaps
a IhreatlO affecti,'e communion partly account, for recent preoccupalion wilh
memorializing lrauma, from Holocaust museum, 10 Am, quilts 10 anonymous
roadside Howen, Prrhaps, inewrably, the nr<:eS5ily of restoring conditions
for intersubj,,!i>"e experience exerts a counterpressure 10 Ihe demand, to era..,
it or f"'i.., ii, and Ihere may be more a growing resistance 10 modern displace-
ment and the rist of mowments aimed at he lping to se<:ure perwns against
a corrmive functionalism 10 th. benefil of both p>)'chi, and social systems,"
In any case, il would appear Ihallne dosure of psychi c systems foundalional
10 Luhmann', conception of social syslems rests on a condit ion Ihal is deeply
ambiguous with respeci 10 closure, Both other beings and ewnts, in at least
some resl""ts, participate in an inte"ubjective microl<mporalily Ihal suggesls
new grounds for interrogaling th. functionall alency upon which modernity
I. Luhmann. "l'ompofaliZ.1lion of Complexity: 10<>-101.
2. The tieKTiption of .utopoi"';. th .. follo"" i ••• ummary of !«lions) and 4 of
M"umn.'. lJiolox:t' of Cognition, a, reprintoo in M .. u,,,,,. ond Varela. "'"'0/"';";'
allJ C"l!nilio," &-40.
J. l(am>ehand,an ... <1 pf"mlom, iN liu lJ,ain, 2).
4, Ibid,,}<>--56.
j. Dam.,;io deomoo the phantom limb "tolor.ble in the kmg ,un," s.. hi. iA>okin!for
Spi"""'.19) ,
6. 1I«",in, Posl"""ntnl;c Slf'" J)j""d", 104- '7,
7, Thi •• ,«all Hpt'rWlKe i. the b .... fo, moot f.,:ent explowiom of dual
"'p"""nt .. ion throry. See Holm ... B,ewin, . nd H.nn ... y, · l'r.uma hIm.: ).
g, 1I«",in, Posl"""ntnl;c Slf'" J)j""Ik" 1I9-2L
9. 1bi> int<fp«tatiort i. much with that of Pi."" lanet. "'00 ... titipated
dual fop,,,,,,n .. tion throry. s.., Hol m<>, B"'",in, .nd H.nn .... y. "Tmuma film.:
IS, . nd Il, ....... in, ""'11,",mmlic 5"", Di""Ik" loll.
'0, fo, 0 volume of .... y, that f''''luontly pursue. , h. >O(ial value of ",itn< .. to tr. um.,
_Caruth. T,aum".
H. l'or , d<u, ,ummary on mirror nt'U,on ,,,,,,a,ch and implic"iom, _
R.moch. ndran. "Mirro, Nou,on •• nd Imi .. tion "
12. l1«,hio and Ilenon •• "Ileyond C.n", i"" Sub;":ti vi,m, " 2}; in ofigin.l.
IJ. V".t •• nd lJepfO" "At the of Time: 7j.
'4, Jamoson. PO!llood,,,,j,,,,. ,<>-,6,
IS. 1' 0" po ... explorat ion of mourning .. omOOdi • ..! .... Kra.ner,
·Ooubtful An", and Ph.ntom Limbs: 218.-)2.
16. In, I.n" of ,8m. WorJ,worth d""ri!>.. ,he pow" of .uch ).,nJ in ,h. Ii...,. of it>
m!!", pmpri<!ofS ' 0 ,h. gr ... Whig ,"''',m,n Char)", I.""., I'ox: liul. ' ,olct
of I.nd ><"fVl"5 ••• kind of rcrmoln.n, ,.lIying rain' for 'heir dom.,,'" f,eli ng ....
• tobl", upon which ,h.y.r< r i   ~ wh",h m,k ... them <'/*,t> of m.mory in a
thou",nJ in'1>nc<"> wh.n they would oth,rwi .. be forgott.n. It i •• foun .. in fined
to ,he n.tu," of soc;.,1 man from which .uppli'" of .ff""'ion .•• pu," os hi> he." was
in1<nded for. or. daily Jr.wn. Thi. d .... of men i. ,.p>dly di"'pp"Jfing" (Word.-
wo rth.url ...... "31-t-IS).
'7. Ci,ed in Tim!>.rg. "A Culture ",ni.h ... in K.).,h. ,i Uu,!."
18. Fo,. '-""'<y of various 'ptem, -,h"",",;[01 Ji!i<,,,,oon. of ,h. v.1 u" of d"yn<hroniZol-
tion,...,       . "An Introduction ,oward •• Cul,ure of Non-Simul'ol""i'y."
Meaning as Event·Machine, or Systems Theory
and Reconstruction of  
Derrida atld Lullmann
A, I .. id, human, <0"1 (ommunl,",".
  "How <I n 'he mind po,'kip. te In (""""."k.Uon?"
The re«ption of system, theory in th. United Stat ........... nd in North America
generaUY---<lver the past decade and mo .. has bet-n vexatious JI best. In a profes-
,ional academic in which most crities and throriSIS pride them"I,",",
on moving ea.ily and synueticall)" betln"en theoreti(al approoches that. at an
earl ier momenl, we .. thought of more a, warring faction., 'ystems theory
remaim odd man out. When it i, understood at all, it i, rout inelyg...,ted with
reaclion. "'nging from .mpicion to outright ang.r. CriliC:l who think of their
work (rightly orwronglylas a component of a broader political project- ;II leasl
Ihe las! instance: to borrow Loui. Althu:s.ser·, weU-known ,"wat---<lft en
view .y.tem, theory as just a grim tKhnoctatic functionalism or a thinly dis-
guised apology for the status quo, a kind of thinly camouflaged social Darwin·
ism. On this view, .ystem, theory- in .ither its first -order. Norbert Wiener
,·e"ion or it. :l«ond·order, Niklas Luhmann retooling---t;e" .ssimilated to
the larger context of post-&cond World War society'. obses.ion with man-
agement. command-and-control 'ppa",tuse •. inform. tic reproduction. ho-
meostasi.., and the like, rightly criticized by th.orim like Donna Haraway in
her imponant e""y. "The Biological Enterprise: Sex, Mind, and Profit from
Human Engi neering to Sociobiology. ·' System. theory, in"ead of being in,·ited
to the pany reserved for chaos and complexity throry and their intere" in the
unpredictability. creativity. and emergence of compln nonl inear dynamics,
ends up dancing with Richard Dawkins', The &Ifi,h Still others lewl
more general charges familiar from the shopworn discourse of anti · theory and
syslem. Iheory's ex .... iye abstraction. it. lack of allemion to ..xial and
historical texture. and its blind ambition to assimilate ewrything in its pun'iew
as grist for its universalizing mill.
If these charges sound familiar, they ought to. be<:au", they an uncanny
l"Cho of the soli> of things that we all remember said about deconstruc-
tion- .peciIKally about the work of jacques Derridd- when it came a,hore
in North in the t970'   Speech ",,,/ Ph",o",,,,a appeared in
translation in 1973, followed in rapid .uccession by Of Gmm,,"uowgy in English
in '976 and Writing m,d Diffrrmu in 1978). Of course. we all got owr ii, and the
irony need hardly remarked (but I'll remark it anyway) that it is difficult to
find p""ple who Ita"e had much succe .. in Ihe profeS5ion of literary and cultural
studies in Nort h Amer;'a who did not cut their tfflh on jUSlthe .. texts and
who .. deploymentoflessons learned from them in thrirown work is not more
or Ie .. automatic and unconscious.
The reasons for 'y'tem, theol»' chilly reception in the United Stat .. are
complicated. 1 think, and I'm not going to investigate them in any detail here,
but I'll at least offer a couple of very brief sJll"Culations. On. set of reasons (not
to underestimated) i, disciplinary and institutional. First, as many of us
"dt'Con'tlUction in Ameri<:a" ---'3 time c'p,ul. phrase if ever there
was on.-mad. it' way into uni,'e .. iti .. mainly "ia comparatiw literature d.-
partmem.; and if you think rhm was a precarious foothold, comider the faci
that the major practitioner of systems theory (Luhmann) has emorro the u.s.
academy primarily by way of German departments (or their equivalent fraction,
in larger and languag. dep.rtment.), mainly under the
rubric of int. lIectual hi,torr. (Here the work of scholars such as David
Wdlbery, William Rasch, and Han, Ulrich Gumbrl"Chl would be exemplary.)
But over Ihe past decade, many American unive rsities have down,izro or elimi -
nat. d altogether th. ir German departments, and it is hard for me to think of
any more place to be in the humanities in the United Stat .. owr
the past ten years, with the possible nception of da .. ics deparrments.
Related to thi' qu .. tion of institutional foothold i. another, different def-
icit: the absen .. of a nationally disseminated journal that is tethered more
or less unilat<rally to Ihe theoretical mooeL Diacritics (published out of the
Comparative Literature Department at Cornell Uni ... rsity) became something
like the house journal for deconstruction in the 1970. and '80s. but th. StllN-
ford Litcmrurr RM'il'W. which has done more than any 'ingle U.S. journal to
consistently publi sh work in 'f'tem, theory, is not D;IIerir;",. A few sJll"Cial
issu", of other. well-known journal, have been devoted to 'ystem, theory
and/or l.uhmann', work- Theory, e,,/rurr. a"d Soc;e/y (published by Sag. in
222 CAR1 WOLf[
Great Britain, though wid.!y available in the Uni ted States ), "LN, New Gi>,mmJ
CritiqPJr, and one and a half issues of CJlitJlwi CritiqJlr entitled "The Politic,
of System' and Environment'" - but nothing lhat h .. th. kind of ongoing
re!atiomhip to system, theory that Rrp'r>I!mations did and doe, for New His-
toricism, Moreover, ' ystems theory has had to brook an ewn gr. ater degree
of disciplinary dissonance: where the e' tablishing text, of deconstruction were
quite identifiably within the pun'iew of philosophy and often of literature,
the major texts and figure, of sy"ems theory enter the humanities through
the sid. door of sej"Jre----<"ither social science and sociology (with Luhmann)
or the life sciences (in the case of Humbeno laturana and Francisco Varda)
or the interface of first -order cybernetic computer science with neurology ( in
the case of Heinz \'on Foerster), And finally, of course, Ihere is the daunting
difficulty of the theory il5elf, which-particular! y in Luhmann's hands-----1;ives
even seasoned readers of theory pause with its extraordinary abstraction and
rigor; its head-on engagement with problems of paradox, self-reference, and the
like: its counterintuitive findings: and its rdative lack of creature
comforts along the way for those who haye ' igned on for the journey of what
Luhmann unabashedly call. "super-theory." Of course, he .. again we should
probably remind ourselves that it is hard to recall a major theoretical deydop-
ment about which sonlelhingsimilar was not said, and some of our colleagues
are old enough to remember similar complaint. about the t.-chni",l rigor and
cold-bloodedn.,.. of that strange, ali enating, scientistic approach to litrrary
texts called "the New Critici' m. "
Other speculation, could no doubt be offered about why sl'stem, theory in
th. United States has not emerged as the kind of faclor in cultural ",udies that
it is most ob"iou, ly in Germany, but my main point i, not to analyze those
reason. further. Rather, it is to nudge the reception of sy' tem, theory in a
different di rection by strategically bringing out some of it, more "d.-conmuc-
tive" (if you will ) characteristics. ' Indeed, I hope to make it dear to skeptics
that much of what they like about d.-construction is also much of what they
,hou/,i like about syslem, theory because 'Y'tenlS theory in its mntemporary
aniculation- far from conforming to the stereotypes prepared for il in the
U.S. academy- "may well be read." to borrow Dirk Ba.-ker', formulation,
"as an attempt to doawdywith any usual notion of system, the theory in a way
being th. deconstruction of its <entral term."' To take only one   let
us revi,it the epigraph with which I began. On the one hand- the dominant
hand- Luhmann' s mntention th,t "humans can't communicate" seems not
just muntffintuit i"e but flatly wrong; in fact (as a colleague mentioned to
recently at a conferencd, it .... ms "insult ing."
And )'et- as will be dear by the end of my comments here. I hope-
Luhmann's remark (rhetorically calculated, no doubt, to came just such a stir)
malt .. es .. ntially the same point about the differe nce betw .... n "con",wume,,"
and "communication" that we ha,'e quite readily accepted for df<ad .. now
as gospel from Derrida- namdy, hi' df<omtrunion of the "auto-afff<tion"
of the voice-as-pr.,ence and of the .-alorizing of speech (as an index of the
sdf-pr""'nce of consciousness to itself) over writing (a rf<ursive domain of
itemti"e communication that is, properly understood, fundamentaUy ahuman
or e",n anti -human).' lnd .. d, as we wiU..., in more detail below, it is to insist
on just thi' sort of radical "paration of what Luhmann calis psychic and social
systems that Derrida comes to rej<'Cl the notion of "the 'ignifior" (as in Lacan's
formulation of "th. subj"'t of the .ignifi .. : which ...,ms at lim glance quite
cognate to Luhmann's formulation ) in favor of the articulation of writing as
fundamentall y a , tructured dynamics of "the traer.·
My pairing of system, theory and dr<:onmuction he .. should come as no
surprise because Derrida himself announces the convergence in his own term,
in early, formati ... texts such as   whose first chapter, "The End
of the Book and the Beginni ng of Writing: begins with a section entitled "The
Program," The .. Derrida arguesthat "theentire lield cm'ored by thecybernetic
will be the field of writing," but "Titing understood in term. of "the
grt""",""""'r the grnph.""," a writing that would name as its fundamental unit
"an element without simplicity"- which i, to say, as I will argue below, an ele-
ment of irreducible ccmplexily (specifically .. sy'tems theorr u",. the term).
And a temporaliled comple1ity at that, for as Iftrrida argue., "Cybernetics i,
itself intelligible only in telmS of a hi'torr of the possibilities of the traer as the
unitr of • double mOYement of protention and retention. · '
Derrida', ciaim, forwarded as it was in the late may seem even now a
radical one, but in fact it was lodged against the backdrop of an entire revolu-
tion in the sciences that had already taken such model, as axiomatic. In fact, the
first chapter of 1965 Nobel Prize winner Fran"oi. Jacob's remarlGtbly influential
Th. Logic of Ufe is called "The Programm •. " There Jacob reminds us that
"heredity is described today in term. of infonnation, me""ge .. and code: and
what this meam--and this is dearly related to Derrida's early "mk on both
Hus.serl and Saussure---is that «the intention of a psyche has been replaced by
the tran.lation of a m .... ge. The living being doe. indeed represent the execu-
tion of a plan, but not one conceived in any mind."' Derrida would add to this,
however, the poim t.e presses in   "If the theory of qbernetics
is b), itself to oust all metaphysical concopts---induding the concept' of soul,
oflife, of .-alu. , of choice, of memory- which until ,,,,emir served to separate
224 CAR1 WOlff
lhe machine from man, it must conserve the notion of writing, trace, gramm",
[written mark[, or grapheme, umil its own hi5l0rico-metaphysical charact ..
is exposed."' A, an ""ample of .uch "(haract .. ," interestingly enough, Der-
rida cires in a foolnotr not Jacob but first-generation system, thfOri51 Norbtrt
Wiener, who "whil. abandoning ' semantics,' and the opposition, judged by
him as too crude and too general, bttw .. n animate and inanimate etc, ne ... er-
theless continues to use     likr 'organs of sense,' ' motor organs,' etc.
to qualify the pa'" of the machine, " Pan of what I wiil bt arguing in what
foilows i, that Luhmann's handling of syst ems theory accomplishes just the
sort of "con"rYation" of the logic of the gramm (, that Derrida call, for, a con-
se .... ation that is crucial to any poSlhumani.", whalSOeYer- not only because
Ihe mOYement of the program-as-granllm' "goes far btyond the possibilities
of the ' intent ional' " as the source and guarantor of meaning,
but also btcause oncelhe notion of the program is invokrd,one no longer h ..
". ecou .... to the concepts thai habitually serve to distinguish man from oth ..
li" ing btings (instinct and intell igence, absence or prestnce of speech, of <o<iety,
of econom)', etc. } ....
Nowas [ hd"e suggested elsewhere, this , ross-talk betw .. n postwar science
and what would come to btcailed "thfOry" is not limited to Derrida and Wiener;
indeed, perhap' Ihe most profou nd bad<Slory of ail in contemporary thought
is the ongoing, if . pisodic, influence of such new scientific discourses upon
Ihinkers who would . merge in the 1950' and ' 600 to redefine the .... ry land",.pe
of Ihe humanitie. and <o<ial ",iences (lhink here of Foucault' , interest in Jacob
and Canguilhem, Lacan's in cybernetics, Lyotard'. in charn; and catastrophe
IhfOry, and so on}." My aim al the momem, how""er, is not to make that his-
torical argument . Nor i. it just to play up the decomtructiw aspects of sptems
thfOry, nor eYen to . uggest, as I h,,', been, thai the largely knee-jerk r""tions
to   theory in the United States have been misplaced (or at least, vis-a-... is
the .. ception of deconstruclion, rather ungenerously placed).
Rather, my emphasis here will bt on the usefuln .. s of ... iewing "",ond-order
system, thfOry as (to use Nikla. Luhmann'scharacteriution I "the reconstruction
of deconmuction."" That projecl hinges on systems thfOry'. extraordinarily
rigorous and detailed account of the fundamental dynamics and complexities
of meaning that subtend the reproduction and interpenetration of psychic and
social >ystems. And 'ptem, theory then takrs the additional step of linking
Iho", dynamics to their biological, <o<ial, and historical conditions of emer-
gence and transformation,. crucial mo,'e that, as Gunther Teubner has ar-
gued, deconstruction either cannot or will not undertake. It is cenainly the
ca .. thai Denid.' s later work has been inten .. ly and increasingly engaged with
the question of social instituTions in all their forms-the law, the uni",,,ity,
the question of right., The inSTitution of propnty, and so on- and the logics
that ground and SUSTain their reproduction. BUI .. ven though h .. ha. rai""d .uch
questions- worried Them might be a beller term- with a degree of nuance and
suppl.n .... perhaps unmatched in contemporarythrory and philosophy, Der-
rida has not been especiall y interested in aniculaTing the relationship between
the TheoreTical th05e d}11amics a nd the historical and sociologi -
cal condition. of their emergenct'----<:ondition. ThaT he him""lf .uggests impel
such thinking atthi. "ery moment. " (Whether Ihi. is a failure or a principled
refusal on Denida'. pdrt i. an intereSTing question, and it is one I will return
10 in my remark.< below. )
One could cite any number of Denida' . "x" in Thi. connection, but the
recent colleclion of essays Withom AliM exemplifies quite well what I mean.
There Denida conside .. the question of what he call . "a politics of th. "irtual, "
of "a certain delocalizing "inualiution of the srace of communication. discu.-
sion, publication, archi\'iZdtion. " againST the backdrop of thi' larser question:
·Will we one day be able. and in a single gesture. to join the thinking of the
ew nt to the thinking of the machine?"" "T od'y: he continues. "they appear
to u. be antinomic. ... An event worthyofth. name ought not, so we think,
10 gi,'e in or be reduced 10 repetition." but rather "ought above all to /"'pprn
to someone. some hing being who i, thus it." The machine, on the
contrary, i. deSTined "to reproduce iml"'"iwly, imperceptibly. without o'gan
or organicity, recei,'ed command,;" it obeys calculable program without
affect or auto-affection.""
If we are 10 add .... the sons of questions raistd here. Denida argues, now is
the time for a new kind of thinking. "How: Derrida asks, "is one to reconcile,
on /I" one h",,,J, a thinking of the ewnt, which I propo"" withdrawing, despite
the app.Trnt paradox. from an ontology or a metaphysics of presence . . . and,
0" th. 011,,.,. hand. a certain concept of machi nene"   Thi.,
Derrida rightly ob"",,",,!;. is "the place of a thinking that ought to be d,,'oted to
the virtualization of the ewnt by the machine. t 0 a virtuality that. in .. ding
the philo>ophicai determinaTion ofthe po"ibili ty of the possible . .. <xceed. by
the same IOken the classical opposition of the p05Sible and the
"[f one day," Derrida continues. "with one and the same concept, these two
incompatible concepts, the event and the machi ne, were to be thought together,
you (an bet that '10/ OJ/I)' . .. will one have produced. new logic. an unheard-of
conceptual form. In truth against the background and horizon of our present
possibilities. thi' new figure would .. semble 3 monster."" h would be. in a
word. posthumanist.
226 CAn Wo lfE
What I want to suggest, of ((Iurse, is that systems theory in its "",ond-order
incarnation i, just such a "monster, " one whose cornemone genetic mutation
is the transfer of the concept of autopoi.,is from organicity to the domain
of not only p'y<:hic but al", social systems,     whose fundamental ele-
ments are not people or groups but communications and "e .... nt," -and e .... nt'
quite rigorously conceptualized along the lines Derrida lay' out above. W.
ha," already used deconmuction to help clarify a "entral point from system,
thoory- the separation of psychic and social ')"Stems----but here we can return
the [a,·or and use 'y,tems theory ro darify how the thinking of the ..... nt may
be, in Derrida' swords, withd"y,"Tl from "an ontology or metaphy,ics of pres-
ence."" On the one hand, ewnts constitute the fundamental elements of psy-
chic and social sy'tems in luhmann' s scheme. On the other hand, "they occur
only once and only in the briefest period necesoary for their appe.rance (the
'speciou, present' ). They are identified by this temporal appearance .nd can-
not be repe.tro. "" But "precisely thi' suits them to be the elementary unit' of
processes" because "the .ptem itself determines the kngth of time during which
an element is Ifeatro as a unity that cannot be funher dissoh-ed; that pt"riod ha,
a conferrM, not .n ontological character."'" An element's unity "corresponds
to no unity in the ,ubstrate: it i. "eatM by the sy"em that uses them through
their connecti"ity": "accordingly, " luhmann continues, "an ade<[uately stable
system is composed of unstable elements. It owes it. ,tability to itself, nOl to
its element.: it constructs itself upon a foundation that is ent irel), not ' th ... ,'
and this is precise I)' the sense in which it is autopoietic . • " And here, as much as
anywher. , we get a "ery specific sense of how system, Ihoory thinks Durida'.
eYent and machine all at once, as a deconstruct;,", enfolding of the difference
between the system'. iterative self-reference and the Heeting temporality of the
""ent from the "outside" -a difference that not only servesa. the .... .,.- basi. for
the s)'stem' s autopoiesis, but .1", clarifies the fact, as Dietrich SchwanilZ put,
it, that "systems theory is an}1hing but mechani ,tic.""
As for Derrida', pan- you will have already guessffi by my use of the t.rm
"iterati"e" . bo .... - w. know what hi' ,'e .. ion of this monstrosity of the event -
m.achine looks like: it looks like trrilUrr, arch"-writing as ai/frrmtcr, as gram",'
and as trace. For our purposes., it isaU the more int ... 'ting. then, that in cont.ast
to hi' notion of writing, Derrida has inlerrog<neal he concept of communication
in a YJriel)' of contexts and nowhere more forcefully, perhaps, than in hi' essay
«Sign.lure Event and it' related documents collected in U",ilra hIe.
There Derrida argues that hi' concept of writing un uno longer IK comprehen-
sible in term, of communication, .t lea,t in tn. I imit.d sen .. of a transmis.sion
of m. aning. Inversely, it is within the general domain of writing, defined in thi'
way, thatlhe effects of >emamic communicalion can be delermine<! as effecl>
Ihal are particular, >econdary, in<cribed, and  
Thefull rrsonance of Ihi. lasl aMen;"n in relation to the dynamic> of "mean·
ing" in system. Ihrol)' will ooome dear below, bUI for now we need to notr as
wellihalthe difference between wriling in the Derridean ..,n.., and communi ·
(alion as he defines it i. marhd by radically differ.nt relation, to Ihe queslion
of the .ubject---;tnd herr, indeed, we encoumer, from the poim of ,'iew of hu·
manism, pari ofil> "monslro.ily.· A, Derrida wriles. "Imagine a wriling wh"",
code would be so idiomalic a.lo be establi.hed and kno"'n. as a ..,cret cipher,
by only two 'subjecl.·· ---;tnd "subjecl." here is given in quolation marks:
Could we maimain Ihal, following Ihe death of the recei",r, or ewn ofbolh
partners., the mark left by one of them i •• till a writing? Ve., ro th. extem
Ihal. organized by a code, even an unknown and nonlinguiSlic one, il i.
constiluted in ils idemily as a mark by ils ileTabilily. in Ihe absence of such
and such a person, and hence ultimately of ",'elf empirically determined
".ubject." ... The possibililY of repealing an d Ihus of identifying the mark.
i, implicil in Ivery code, making it imo a network rune grillr] thai is com·
municable. lransminable, decipherable, iterable for a Ihird. and hence for
ewry possible user in general. To be what it is, all wriling musl, Iherefore,be
capable of functioning;n Ihe radic-JI ab:sence of ",'ery empirically dl'lermined
receive, in general."
He rei n Ii .. the radically pmlh u mani'l dimens;"n of wri ling· a,·diffe renee: the
subjecl- in a proce .. nearly proverbial for postmodern thought from Derrida
to Lacan---.(omes to be only by conforming t!) a slrictly diacritical .yslem of
differences., "effects which do nOi find their cause in a subjecl or a subslan,,", in a
Ihing in general, a being Ihal i, somewhere pre..,nt, Ihereby eluding Ihe play of
di/frm,u. ·" Morro"er. those effeets and relati!)n. are al oner malerial. bodily,
external, institutional, lechnological, and hiSiorieal--{h." <'XiSi in aillh. specific·
ity and helerogeneily of what Derrida will call their "iteration.· Hence. Derrida
will argue thai "this purr difference. which cOMtilUIe. Ihe ,df·pr.sence of Ihe
hing presem. imrodlKes imo self'pr"""n" fromlh. beginning aillhe impurily
pUlati, exduded from it. The li\'ing presem springs fonh out of its noniden·
lily with it>elf and from Ihe possibility of a retentionaltr"" •. II is always already
a trace." And ",hal this mean" in tum, i, Ihal "I he trace i. the intimate relalion
of the li\'ing present to its OUl>idl. Ihe opening 10 eXleriority in general:'"
From the poilll of view of the philo:sophicaltradition Derrida i. concerned
to deconstruct. ,ueh will be the and work
{the "monstrosity, · if you will } of "iterabilily. " which "email, Ihe necessilyof
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He .. , ho ... "',,, "'e find a diametricaUy r.-'er",d oriental ion or angle of ap-
proach in the two Iheories------<>ne Thai, I lIelie ... e, accoulll, for Ihe "monslros-
ily" of deconstruction l>eing relali ... dy well rffeived, whil. 'y'lem, theory has
lended 10 provoke all son, of defen'ive and rffuperative respon .. ,. To PUI
thi s ... ery schemalically, Derrida and Luhmann approach many of Ihe .. m.
question,and articulale many oflhe ",me fonnal dynamic,of meaning (a, self-
ref .. ence, ilerabilily, rffur,i"ily, and so on), but they do so from diam.trically
opposed direction •. A, s..:hwanilz ha, pointed out, Ih. starling point for 'Y'lem.
theory is Ihe question of ... hat makes ord .. pos.sible and how highly organized
complexily, which i, highly improbable, comes into being at aiL Oeconstruc-
lion, on Ihe other hand, begins wilh taken-for-granted inlran,igent structure,
of logocentrism .nd lhe metaphy,ic. of pre",nce Ihal are a!ready .n"onced
in textual and inslitulional form and Ihen ask. how Ihe ,ub" .. ,ion of Ihose
structures by Iheir own dement' can be ,,'waled."
For Derrida, contingency, lemporalily, the event, "noi .. : and so on con-
stilute the . ruplive and finally irrepressible difference al the hean of any logo.
or law,' difference whose una"oidabilily and u nmasterabiliry deconstruction
aim, 10 bring 10 light and ,ustain. For syslem. Iheory, how""er, thi' radical
helerogeneity i, handled ... ithin an adaptive and operational framework, a. a
fundamental"'olulionary problem for autopoietic ' Ihal hav. to repro-
duce Ihemsel ..... in Th. fac. of Ihis oYerwhelmi ng difference.
&c1use of this
"Yer .. 1 of orientalion, Ihe d,«riplilJn. offered by   Iheory ("autopoi.tic
system, Ihal can reduce environmental difference and complexity ... ill con-
tinu. to exi't") ha .... been mi,und.rstood a, prrSl"riptiom (",uch 'ystem. ,ho"ld
exist and difference and compl.xily are negati ... , .. lues"). BUI of course,  
tem, theory dorm'l desi" the reduclion of difference and complexity (indeed,
Luhmann ... ould l>e the first 10 in,isllhal ,uch would constilule a c.tegory
mistake if "'er Ihere was one); il only ,i,«ri"". how difference and complexily
haw 10 be handled by system, Ihal hope to conlinue aUlOpoi .. i •.
Syslem, theory, in other words., doesn't occlude, deny, or otherwise d""alue
difference bUI ralh .. begins with difference-namely, Ih. cornerslOne poslulate
oflhe difference bel ..... n 'ystem and en ... ironment----<l.nd the corollary "sump-
lion that Ih. em'ironment of any S)'Slem is always already of o"erwhelmingly
grealer complexity than Ih. syslem it.>elf. Since il is ob"ionsly impos,ible for
anpyslem 10 esl.blish point -for -point corresp"'ndencesl>etween itself and it.>
environment, syslems Ihu. handle Ihe problem of owrwhelming environmen-
tal by reducing it in   of the ... l<'<li\'ily made available by the
'ystem', self-referenlial code; as Luhmann puts ii, "The system', inf.riority in
complexily must be counter-balanced by 'Irategies of selection: "Complexity,
230 CAR1 WOLf[
in this sense: continues,     being forcrd to seiect: and thus, in
Luhmann's winning fommiation, "only comple.xity can reduce  
Under pressure to adapt to a complex and changi ng environment, ,y>!em,
increase their selectivity- thoy make their em'ironmentai filters more findy
woven, if you building up their own inurnai complexity by means of
self-referential dosure and th, reentry of the s)"ltem/environment distinction
within the sy'tem itself in a   of internal d ifferentiation."
For exampie, the difference betw..,n the legal sptem and it> environment
" reintroduced in the l<"gal itself, which now serves as the environment
for the Yarious subsystem, of the law, and the same could be said, within the
educational system. about the Yarious academic disciplines and subdiscipline,.
and so on." This self-referential dosure. however, "does not contradict the
'ystem's 01''''''.'' ro rio •• m';ronnoem. Instead, in the self· referential mod. of
optration, do:sure is a form of broodening possible environm'ntal contact,;
dosure inClea .... by constituting elements more capable of being determined.
the complexity of the environment that i, possible for the system." And thi' is
why, Luhmann writes. "self-reference is in itself nothing bad. forbidden. or to
be avoided"; ind..,d, it "point< directly to system formation' because sy'tems
",an be<:ome complex onl)" if the)" succ..,d in solving thi' problem and thus in
de· pa rado xicaiizing th 'm,elw •.  
What makes such sptems paradoxical in the fim place- the generative
self-reference that gets the baU rolling, as it were-is the unity of the difference
betw..,n the two 'ides of th, distinction that anchors its code. For example.
the fim ·order distinction betw..,n lega! and ill egal in the legal is it .. lf
a product of the code', own self-reference-that is. the problem is that both
of the distinction are instantiate<i by 0'" side of the distinction (namely,
thelega!; hence the tautology, "l<"gal " l<"gal" ). But the tautological unity of this
distinction mar be discloS&! onl)" by • kYond·."uer observer, operating within
GJlorh,.,. 'y'tem and   cod" which must remain biind to it, paradoxical
distinction if it "to use that distinction to proc ..... e,'ent, for the s)"'tem', .u-
topoiesi •. and so on and so forth.
What is most interesting here. however, is that these constitutive I'-'radoxes.
far from hindering the autopoiesis of 'ptems, in fact forer their
autopoiesi •. " And here-in this transvaluation of the paradoxes of self-reference
from I"'raI}1ic to productive-the lin .. of relation bet",..,n sy'tem, and
da:onstruction come quite dearly into view. Luhmann writes as follows:
If we want to ob .. rve paradoxical communications as deframing and .. -
framing. and operation .. we need a concept
of ... as the simulianeous pr .... mation ... of actuality and pos-
sibilily .... Th. distinction actual/possible is a form thai "re· eme,,· itst"lf.
On one 'ide of the distinction. Ihe aClual. the dislinction actual/possible
reappe"", it is copiffl imo il ... lf .... If we ob",r,"" such a r. ·emry. we...., a
paradox. The distinction is the same, and it is nOllhe same. But
the paradox does not pr,,·.nt Ihe operations of Ihe 'y'tem. On the contrary.
il i, Ihe condilion of Iheir po55ibilily."
Thi' is 50, luhmann wrile •. because "The 10lalily of Ihe r.ferences present.d
by any meaningfully intended objfCt offe" more to hand Iltan can in fact be
actualized al any moment. Thus the form of meaning. Ihrough its referential
structure, forces the nexi 'I'P, 10 selcrrioM. ")f But Ihal .. Iection, of cour"" im-
mfflialely begins 10 d.teriorale in usefuln .... under pressure of Ihe lemporal
!low of ,,·ents. the "'pecious present." which then force, "'IOII, .... "'lfCtion. and
so on and so forth.
Here ",e encounter ,y"ems Iheory' , ,.."ion of whal Derrida calls the dy-
namic force of diffrrancra, "Iemporizalion" and 'spacing," as "protention" and
"r.tention: a process that "is possible only if each 5O-calle<ip,=nt element ..
i. relale<ilo something othertltan it ... lf. Ihereby keeping wilhin il",lf mark
past" while at Ihe same time being ""itiale<i by the mark of its
relation t() th. future dement," thus "constitUTing what is (ailed the present
by means of this "ery relalion to whal it is nOI."'"' Or as luhmann puts il. "One
could say thai meaning equips an actualexl'eriencr or aClion wilh redundant
possibilitirs"- namely. whal IWI' ,elfClffl (the actual ) and what could ha"e
t>et,n (the possible)----<tnd Ihis is crucial for any 'Y"tem', ability to respond 10
environmental compt.xity by building up il> own complexily "ia Ihe form of
meaning: Ihis is whal luhmann means when he saY" Ihal "rili, formal req',;rc-
",em ref .... ' m,,,,,ing 10 rl,. probl.m of co"'pkxily.""
"The genesis and reproduction of meaning presuppos .. an infra'tructur.
in reality that con,tantly changes il> states." Luhmann writ ... "Meaning then
rxtrdCts difference. (which only as differences ha,'. meaning) from this sub-
,tructure to enable a diffrrence-oriemfflproce55ing of information. On all
meaning. therefore, are imposed a temporali2e<i compl.xity and the com-
pulsion to a constant shifting of actualit)·, wi t hout meaning itself vibrating
in tune with that ,ub,tructure.'"" From an adaptive and "'olutionary point
of ,·jew, then, as Bruer Clarke examines in thi' "olume, ... If-reference and
the fonn of meaning do not indicate solipsism. Quit. the mntrar)". As Luh-
mann point' out. it is "unproductive for meanings to cirrulate as mere self-
refer.ntiality or in shon -circuited tautologies .... On. can think, <Thi' rose i. a
2)2 CARY WOlf f
ro", is a ro", is a to"': But thi, use of a recursi"e path is producti"e only if it
makes itself dependent on spe<:ific conditions and does not always e",u •. "<>
And herein lies difference for Luhmann betw,""n ,,,,,m;"g and ;IIfornwtim,.
one that recalls Oerrida', emphasis in LI",;,ed Inc. on 'pecific pragmatic,
of itrrability. Applying Spencer· Brown' s of conden ... tion, " as explainro
in Schilt, ', e'-Say in this Yolume, Luhmann continues: "A pireeof informati on
that is repeated is no longer information. It retni", it' meaning in the repeti ·
tion but 10"" it. value a, information. One read. in the paper that the deut5Che
mark ha, risen in ,·alue. If one reads thi' a second time in another paper. thi'
actiYity no longer has nlue a, information ... although structurally it present'
the same .. 1m ion."" Som.thing can be meaningful, in other words., but haye
no informational valu •.
One thu, "begin> not with identity but with diffe .. nce"- with two differ-
ences. in fact: the difference inherent in ewry experience "between what is
ac,w,liy gi'""" and what can p,,,,;bly result from it" that is gi,'en in the internal
form of meaning itself; and the difference between ""a"lng and Informatim,
that is forced upon the syste", by en,.ironmental compl.xity and te mporality.
"Only thus can one giw accidents informational value and thereby construct
order, because information is nothing mo .. than an event that brings about a
conn"tion between differences---'a difference that makes a difference,' There-
fo .. , wr encounter Ih, drcoml"',;,lm. of ""GII;IIg pn Sf." the "de-tautologi,Jtion
of meaning' , self-refe .. nce" forced upon the s)"Stem by the adaptive I'r= ure
of th. enyironment, of the "outside world. '" This is why----<:ontrary to the
yiew of .ystem, theory as solipsi'tic, imperialistic, and so on- Luhmann i",i't.
that "Th. difference between meaning and world is fom,ro for thi' 1',0<= of
the continual self-determination of meaning as the difference between order
and penurbation, between information and noise. Both are, and both remain.
n"e""ry. The unity of the difference is and remain, the basis for operation.
This CG""ol b •• ,,,phas;zcd nrollgly .nOlIgil , A. prtJerenee for """"Ing 0 .... ' world.
for ord.,. owr       fo, infomwtion 0 .. .,. no;", I, only a preference. It d"",
not enable one to dis!",n", with the contrary. '"
In the form of meaning, then, we find that ,y"em, inc",a,", contact>
with their em'ironment, paradoxically by >'i,t,,,,lu;,,S th.m. "Meaning i. the
cominual actualization of potential it ies," Luhmann write •.
But beeau,", meaning can be meaning only as the difference between what i.
actual at any gi"en moment and a horizon of possibilities. e,.ery actualiza-
tion always also leads to a virtualization of the potentialities that could
conne,te..! up with it. The instability of meaning resides in th. untenability
of its corr of actuality; Ihe abilily to is p"",ided by the fact that
,"""rphing adual h .. meaning only within a horizon of possibililies ___ [thai ]
can and must be .. lecud a, the next actualily __ , . Thu, one can Ir.allhe dif-
ference between aClualily and po>s ibility in lerm, of temporal displacement
and thereby proc ..... indication, of possibililY wil h ..... ry (new) actuality.
Meaning is Ihe unily of actualization and vinualizJlion, of re-actualiz.llion
and re-virlualization. as a .. If-propeUing process."
Thi'   via meming is an extraordinarily pow.rful " 'ol ulionary
dynamic, and il is PUIIO good u .. by bolh psychic and ""'ial ,y,' ems. Indeed,
as l uhmann imists. "Nol all 'yslemsprocess complexily and .. If-reference in
the form of meani ng"'-and here one could think of .-arious biological 'y' -
tems"- "bul for Iho .. Ihal do, it is the OI'/y possibili ly. Meaning becomes for
Ihem the form oflhe world and consequentlyowrlaps the differrnce be,ween
'ystem and environment."" Or as Luhmann sometimes characurize, ii- in a
formulation whose re""nances with Derrida's .,say, such as "Structure. Sign.
and Play" are dear .nough, Ilhink- "the relationship between m. aning and
world can al,o be des<ribe<i with the concepl of decenlering. As the
world is a",.,sible e .... rywhere: in every ,itualion. in an)' detail: which i, 10"y
"that Ihe world i, indicaled in aU meaning. To th., staU of affaiI5corrrsponds
an .-remric world concept." and hence "the dOSUTe of the self-referential order
is synonymou, here wilh Ihe i"finiTe openn." of Ihe world.""
This co-i mplicalion of psychic and "",ial 'ystem. via the formal dynamics
of meaning. combined with luhmann', simultaneous insistence on the st rict
separalion of psychic and ""'ial system, as disc rete autopoietic entities, marks
on. of systems lheory', most difficult and counterintuiti"e ureo-bul al""
one of iIS most powerful inno,·alions. In a formulat ion as maller-of-fact .. it
is beguili ng, Luhmann writes: "Humans ,annol communicale; nol e"enlheir
brains can communicate: nol even their conscious minds can communicate.
Only communication can communicale." "What we experience as our own
mind operales as an i""lated aUlopoieric system: Luhmann points OUl. and in
fact , Ihat i""lation is "an indi'pensable condition of its possibility: Theft' is "no
conscious link between one mi nd and anolher. " nor is there any ' operational
unily of more Ihan one mind", a ,)·.lem" - all of which. Luhmann argues. i,
.... ntially ta ken for granted al thi' point by mntemporary neurophysiolom·. "
Indeed, h. asks, how could any I"ychic 'ystem maintain its own functions if
it shared its unily with other minds? How muld J deher a lecture if I
the moment -to-moment ebb and Ilow of I")'chic activily of eYen one olher
consciousne" in the room? In Ihis sen .... "mmmunication," Luhmann writes.,
  ",ith an unsp.cific reference to the panicipating state of mind: it i,
a, 10 ""reeption. It c.nnot copy states of mind, cannot
imitate th.m, cannot repre,ent them. Thi' i, the ba,is for the p,,,sibility of
communication', building up a colllplexity of its own. ""
Our intuition" of cour .. , would ",.m to suggest otherwise, and th;. is so pre-
ci .. ly becau .. psychic 'ystems and social 'ystems haye co,,,,·olved. each "',,"ing
a, the en,' ironment for the other. and this "has led to a common achieYement.
employed by psychic .. well a, soci.1 syst.m,. "" That achi""ement, of cour .. ,
;. meaning. "Meaning,· Luhmann "'rite., ";. the true ',ub,taner' of this .mer-
gent evolutionary le"el. It is therefore fal .. (or more gently, it i, fal .. ly chosen
ant hropocentrism) to assign the psychic , .. ontological priority owr the social.
It i, impossible to find a ' supponing ,ubstance" for meaning, Meaning supports
it",lfin that it enables its own ",If· referential reproduction. Alii! ,,,,Iy Ihe form,
of Ih;, rrpr od "crim, ,liffl"Te",;,," p,ych ic a ",/ wcj,,1 .. mauri'S' - namely. · whether
conscioum." [in the c.", of p'ychic [ or communication [soci.1 s)'s-
tern,) ;. chosen as the form of   Here, as [ have already suggested, we
find Luhmann's an,wer to Derrida' . critique of the auto· affection of the yoi«
and of consciousness as pre",ncr in S/,<"ech "nd Phmomen", Of Grnmmmoiogy,
and eI",where: of the fallacy 1hat writing or communication could be referred
for its efficacy as a representat;"n 10 an ontic substrate of consc;"um." and the
psychic ')"tem, in fact it is the ontologically unsupponed ur· dynamic
of writing (Oerrida) or meaning (Luhmann) that i, fundamental and that .1·
lows p'ychic and social 'y'tems to interpenetrat e,
"The difficulty in ",eing thi.: Luhmann writes (in a di ... rming!y common-
sensica[ moment ), "lies in that "'ery consciousness that tries to do so i, itself
a ",If· refer.ntially clo",d and therefore cannol get outside of con-
sciousness. For consciousnes., "'en communication can only be conducted
consciously and is invested in further po"ible consciousness. BUI for .om",,, -
,,;ml;,m lhi, is nol >D. Communication i, only possible as an "Yent that tran·
sc.nds the closur. of consciousness: as th. synthesis of more than th. content of
just on. conscious ness.·" The confus ins of consciousness and comm u n ication.
if one ",ants to put it that way, i, preci",lywhy "the of meaning must
be employed on such a high thfflreticall."rl , Medning .n.bles psychic and
social '1"tem, to interpenetrate, while protecting their autopoiesis; m.aning
,imultaneously .nables consciousness 10 understand itself and continue to af-
fe(t i1",lf in <communication. and .n.bles communication to be referred back
to the consci<lusne" of the panicipant',"'"
The all-important medium that allows thi' "interpen.tration" via the form
of meaning to take place is, you will ha,'. already gu .... d.iaJlgOU1gf. But "th;'
doe, not mean language determines consciousne .. Luhmann write,: "psychic
processes are not linguistic processes: he continues, "nor is thought in any
way ' internal (a, h .. b«n falsely maintaine<l ), lila"', an 'int.rnal
addre,,,,,: The .. is no 'second I,' no 'self' in the con>eious system, no 'me'
,-i,· a· vis an ' I,' no additional authority that examines all linguistically form.d
thoughts to "" whether it will accept or and whose dffision con·
sciousne .. ""ks 10   Luhmann' , point her. no doubt takes for
grnnted similar formulations throughout Derrida's early work in ",,,/
PheMO"',"", Of Gr" .. mwIOWgy, and elsewhere, but th. emphasis in Luhmann
falls rather differently, on the eyolutionary aspects of this disaniculation. What
is important for Luhmann is that one must do justi<:e 10 the powerful role of
languag. in theco·evolut ion of p"ychic and ><xi_I systems whil. simultaneously
paying anemion to their aut opoiesis and .. If· referential dosure. On th. one
hand, "the eyolution of social communicati on is only possible in a constantly
operntivelink with stales of consciousness: which is proYided by the medium
oflanguage:" on the other ha nd, language «transfers ><xial complexity into psy·
chic complexity" in a process generically referred 10 in contemporary theory as
subjediYation." "The social sysum places ilSown complexily, which has stood
the test of communical ive al th. psychic syst.m's disposal:"
but al the same time,languag. (and, e .... n more, writing) ensures "for Ihe com·
munication syst.m whal calis the con""'""tion of adaptation: the
constant ac<commodation of communication 10 the mind. Th.y define the fr..,
space of aUlopoi" i, wilhinlhe social communication syst.m .... '
For Luhmann, then, language is not constilUliy. of either psychic or "",ial
systems but is rather a "'ry specific, "",ond· order phenom.non_ trpe of
"'y",bolimliy communication m,di"""- Ihat those sysums use in
the se""ces of the fim-<>rd.r processes of meaning for maintaining own
autopoi.,is while allhe same time enabling themlo interpenetrate and use each
other's complexity 10 mutual From Luh mann', point of YleW, language
is "not juS! • means of communi<:ation, because it funaions in psychi<: system,
without communication' in Ih. strici sense of ha"ing 10 take place:" but at Ihe
same lim., "communication is al", possible without language" and may tak.
place in all ",rts of nonlinguistic WJYs. "perhaps through laughing. through
questioning looks, Ihrough dress," and", on."
In facl, what is fundamental about communication for Luhmann is not its
(di.)relation to language, but ralherthal it is a "synthesis of Ihree selfflions":"
"information" (the "content," if )'ou like, to be communicaTed). "un.rance"
(Ihe spe<:ific, pragmatic communicaliv •• venT or beha>'ior sel.cTed to com·
municat. information): and "understa ndi ng" (a receiver' , processing of the
difference between information and utterance that complete, the communica-
tive act )." Again, the i"ue i, not ju,t difference; ,,/I form, of meaning, of which
communication i,. instance, operate by means of difference; the i"ue i.
whether (to remember Gregory Bateson' , phra",).n utterance i,. "difference
that makes a difference" in term, of the system' 5 autopoiesi,. Or a, Luhmann
puts it, "difference a, ,",ch begin< to work if and insofar a, it c.n be treated as
information in ",If-referential 'ystems. "" To ",,,,.11 Luhmann 's e.rlier example
of the value of the deutsche mark, .n utterance, once repeatM, may reldin the
.. me fom1 as   10'" its >tatu, as in[oTnmliorr. it retain. the same form
but has Imt it. capacity to "",lect the 'ystem', stat .. "- not be<:ause its form
hasch.nged but beau", throtate of the .ptem has." Thi, fact draw, our atten-
tion. in turn. to what Derrida in L;",fuJ /"c. calls the   "pragmatically
determined" nature of any instance of undecidability, the emphasis upon which
would seem to run counter to Luhmann' , assertion tha1 "communic.tion is
realilM if and to the extent that undemanding com", .bout .... He .... gain.
however, Derrida and Luhmann con"erge upon the same point from opposite
di=tiom; while Derrida emphasize. the final undecidability of any 'ignifying
imtance, Luhmann ,tr",se. that, " 'en so. ,}'Stems ",u>I decide; they mu,t ",Iec-
tively pro<,." the difference betwan information and utterance if they are to
achie ... adaptive -resonance" with their environments. Thus, underneath this
apparent divergence is a shared empha'is------<J.g.tinst "relativism" and ".nything
goes" reAexi,-;tY-----<lIXln the determinate specifici ty of the ' ignifying or commu-
nicdti,'e in>tance that must be negotiated. which is prrcisely why in Li",;!eJ Inc.
Oerrida r<'frcl, the term   beause it occludes an undemanding
of the "'/eter",;"mr oscillation between possibilities (for example. of meaning,
but also of acts)."'"
Similarly, in Luhmann writing takes center ,tage as the paradigm of commu-
nication but only because it exemplifies a deeper "trace" .tructure (the gramme
of the "programme: as it were) of meaning-a paradigm whose .,"'ntial logic
is only intensified by the sort, of later trchnical deyelopments., beginning with
printing. in which we have already seen Derrida him",lf keenly inter.,ted in
text, like \'Iithout Alibi and Archil'r F",·er. In this light, the problem with "oral
speech," as Luhmann deS(ribes it, is that it threatens to coUapse the difference
between information and utterance, performati"e!y subordinating the former
to the latter and presuming their simult.neity- "Je"'ing literally no time for
doubt:' as Luhmann put, it- in preci",ly the manner analyzed in Derrida's
early critique of the subordination of writing to speaking." BUI if the value
of language is that it i, "the mMium that inc,eas"" the understandability of
communication beyond the .ph .. e of percept ion: " then writing is its full
realiZJtion. "Only wriling," Luhmann obser"e .. "enforc05 the dear distinction
belw..,n informalion and utlerance," and "only wriling and printing suggest
communicali.'e Ihal react, nOi to Ih .. unily of, but 10 the difference
belw..,n utlerance and informalion .... Wriling and printing enforce an
enceoflhedifference Ihat cou>tilutes communicalion: Iheyare, in Ihi. preci""
mort' communicalive forms of commun ication.""
Language. Ihen. may be "a medium dislingu;,he<! by the use of .ign." ---<>ne
thai is capable of" are",U"S the of undersland.ble communic.lion
almost indrfinitely in pracrice: an achif"ement significance "can hardly
be oYerestimale<!." But "il "st., however, on function,1 specificalion. There-
for. on. musl also keep its boundar;"" in "iew,"" For Luhmann- and Ihi ' i,
something like the negali ... image or "1'«:1 ofDerrida's early reading of
Saussure, and his drawing oul of Ihe fun implicalions of Saussure's
contention thai language i. a diacritical .ystem thai operate. ' without po.iti"e
I .. m'"-to subsume the dJnami« of meaning under Ihelheory oflh. sign i,
10 ignore whal he calls the "basal, recursive   Ihal "fonTI' the con-
lext in which an 'igns are determined. "" Hence, "the concepl of the 'ymbolic
generalizalion of meaning's replaces th. concept of the sign that
now h .. dominate<!lhe Ih"",retic.i tradition. ·"
For luhmann, whether or nollo undersland Derrida precisely in lerm. of
thallh"",retical lradition has been a malter of some uncertaintJ'----'iln uncertainty
thai mirrors, 10 a large extent, brooder disagr..,ment. in     and philosophy
about how Derrid. is 10 be read and ",helher. mor"",,'er. the .same undersland-
ing appli05 10 his earlier "e"us 1.ler work." At certain limes. Luhmann suggests
a high degree of tran,lalability between the 1"'0 Ih"",.i ... , while al olhers he i.
concerned 10 keep hi' di>!.nce." But my point her. is nol to rehearse th"""
differences (much Ie .. 10 suggest which underslanding of Derrida i, "righl ") ,
nOT i. it 10 Iry and further syslematize Ihe rel.lionship b.lween luhmann and
Derrida along Ihe lines already (arrie<! oul quile ably by critics such as Dielrich
Schwanitz, David Wenb.ry, Drucilla Corn.U, Hans Ulrich Gumbr«:hl, and
olhers. Ralher. my point i. 10 suggest lhat if ')'Stems theory needs deconstTuc-
lion in Ihe sense 1 tou(hed upon allh. outsel, then deconstruclion . Iso need,
system, tn"",ry 10 help carry out work loward which it has. in comparison,
only geslured.
This complimentarily rest., as [have been arguing, upon Iwo fundament.1
di",rtieu/arimlS in Luhmann Ihal are allhe core of Derrid's work as wdl: the
di",niculation of psychi( and rocial ')'Slem, and, on an even more fundamental
structurall .. ",l, Ihe di.sarticulalion of Ihe formal d)'namics of meaning from
language In my "iew----'ilnd 1 am.saying nOlhing he", [ belie..-e, wilh which
238 CAR1 WOLf[
Derrida himsdf would disagref'-it i, on the of thi' double disarticula-
tion that the ethical and political ambition, of decomtruction, and how they
ari", from a set of thMretiGl] commitmem., largely rest. Tho", ambition, a,.
aptly rxpres",d by Oerrida at moments like the following one in the inter\"iew
"Eating Well":
If one reinscribes language in a n",work of po"ibilities that do not merely
encompa" it but mark it irreducibly from the inside, e\'erything change,. I
am thinking in particular of the mark in general, of the trace, of iterability,
of l1i!Jtrmlu. The .. po"ibilitie, or nece .. iti." without which ther. would
be no language, rhem,dws 'lOt o"ly ',UI"'''' .... And what I am propos-
ing here ,hould allow us to take into account ",ientilie knowledge about
the complexity of "animallanguag .. : coding, all form, of marking
within so-called human language, a, original a, it might be, does not
allow u, to · cut" once and for all where we would in general like to cut.'"
At ,uch moment', Derrida unfold, the implications of the point he first made,
for U.S. audiences, in Of GtIlml""rology. that the form (and force ) of aifjtr""er,
the and the trace indicates a recursive, iterative dynamics of meaning
that exc.,.,d, the rathrr tidy pu ,,'iew of human Ii ngui,ticality alone: as Derrida
puts it in Of Gmlmlwrowgy, "In .11 ",m,e,of the word, wriling thu, comprehml1s
language. "" And it i, on the strength of that theoretical commitment that the
ethical issues inml\"M- in thi ' pMlicular Cl"', issues r<'latM to what is popularly
known as "animal rights" ----<I.i",.
Similarly, in hi' remarkable late """yon Lacan', rendering of the humanl
animal di"ide ,i.-a-vis the -,ubject of the .ignifie r" and lacan' , conuntion that
animal, are incapable of "pretending 10 preund," the elhiml question of our
obligationsto nonhuman beings is generatM by " II,ro,rtical articulation of the
forc. of the traer (,·e .. us the lacanian "signifier") Ihat pushes Derr;da's thought
very much in the direction of Luhmann' s work on the dynamic, of meaning
in autopoietic 'ystem,. As Derrida puts il there, " It is difficult to re .. ",e, as
Lacan does, the differentiality of signs for human language onl)" as oppo .. d to
animal coding. What he auributes to sign. that, ·in a language' understood a,
belonging to the human order, ' take on their ,.,,1 ue from their ,..,Iatio", to each
other' and 50 on, and not just from Ih. ' fixed correlation' bet ..... n 'igns and
reality, GIn and mmt be accorded to any code, animal o. human: Moreowr,
struelure of the trace," Derrida argues, "presuppo .. , that ro  
to   tmcea, much as to imprinting it. ... Howcan it be deni..J that the
,imple substitution of one traer for another, the marking of their diacritical
differ.nce in the most rlem.ntarr inscription- which capacity lacan concedes
10 the animal- in"oh'es erasure as much as it involye, Ih. imprim1"- """d
lhi, i5 why wlong Derrida adds, "1 ,,,b,tilw,d rl,e co,",epr of twee for Inm
of ,ignifirr.""
NOI only do such passages make it dear Ihal Derrida is offering u> nol a
theory of language, nor eyen of "Titing, but a far more ambit iou" and Ihor-
oughly posthumanist, account ofthe paradoxical and d",onSiructi,'e dynamics
of meaning; they also make il dear Ihal the account of meaning in syslems
theory should be viewed a, the "recon.<tru<:lion of d",onSiruction," one that
I"o"ides Ih. son of rigorously aniculated analysis IOward which deconstruc-
lion only gestures philosophically, bUI for that wry reason, in a senst, more
promcalively than Ihe   of Luhmann', sociology. This join ing of forces
belween deconstruction and ,y"em, Iheory i, crucial, I would likelo Ihink, nol
just from 'ystems theory'. vantage, bUI from decon,truction', as wdl. Derrida
points toward Ihi' nec"",ity in a very imponanl footnote in Po,itions:
The critique of hiSiorici,m in all ils forms seems 10 me indi'pensable, .. ,
The i ... ue would be: can one criticize historicism in the name of something
olher Ihan Ir",l, and sri."" (Ihe ,'alue of uni,""""lily, omnitemporaiily, Ihe
infinity of ,'alue, ele. ), and whal happen. to "ience when Ihe
value of Imth has been put into question, etd How .re Ihe efffflS of <cience
and of tr uth to be rein<critwd? ... Finally, it got'S without saying that in no
case is il a question of. discourse   trurh or against <cience. (This i,
impossible and absurd, as is every heal<d accus.lion on this subject. ) And
when one analyzes syslematically Ihe ,'alue oflrulh ... it is nol in order to
return naively 10 a reiatiyiSi or "eplical empiricism,"
If we belin" Gunther Teubner, such a persl"'ctive only draws into even
sharper fOC\lS Ihe need to ,ul>plement deconstruction wilh 'pt''''' Ih""ry, whose
explanalory forc. r .. ide, not only in 3 .. novation of"",ience," which enabl., it
to lak. account of self-rderen .. and the manifold challenges of constructivism,
bUI also in it, abil ity to link these epi'temological inno"alions to Ihe hi,torical
emergence and .pecificity of panicular social form,. Morro,'er, T . ubn .. sug-
goslS, system, Iheory Ihu, enables us 10 undersland a crucial fact aboul social
and politicalefffftiv;ty thai in his "iew is losl on-----<>r at least lost j'!----<lffon-
struction: that the di"losure of paradox doe. not in ilstlf Ihreaten Ihe auto-
poiesi, of social system" a point that in turn bears upon Ihe pUlalive polilical
force of deconstruction's philosophical intervention. As Teubner pUIS it-and
this would, I think, actually amount 10 laking seriously Derrida's in,iSlence on
the specific, pragmatically determined all instances of iteration and
undecidabilily, now "Tit large--"Derrida', is Ihal "it is Ihe secret
240 CAn WOlfE
of autopoifSi, that social systems are no long .. threatened by the par.doxe.
of their deconstructi"e reading. Autopoietic sel f-reproduction mrans that in
routine operation, they ale comtanily de-parndoxif}'ing their foundational
paradox. Thus, they are capable of deconstructing deconstruction. of course
not in the sense that they can exclude it on a long-trrm basis but in the sense
that they 'hift. di'pl.", diS>eminate. hi,toricize decon'truction itself, which
dr.sticall)· chang .. the conditions of it, possibility."" And what this suggest, for
Teubner is that a decomtru,tion that took account of "the foundational para·
doxes of en,.rging social systems would need to become historical. especially
to Ifcogni" its own transformation •. While the basic structure. of the paradox
remain the same, social proc ..... of their in"isibilization and the threaten-
ing moments of their If · emergence depend on hi'torical contingencies ....
The distinctions which are used for de· paradoxification. " he continu .. , "are
dependent on historical-societal conditi on< of plausibility, of acceptability, are
contingent on binding knowledge in particular weieti ... '"
)\;owone might well argue that Derrida's work---particularly hi' later im'''-
tigations of questions of justi" in relation to law, rights, and so on (both in his
own work and in the work of his interlocutors}--is quite cognizant of this fact
and ind..-d dOfS what it does p=isely to confront such ,ystems
knowledge" with paradoxes to which they must respond. But my larger point
here is that the ahistorical, asoc;"logical character of deconstruction is not at all
ob,'iously a failurr per se on Derrida' s part, as Teubner would hJ\' e it, indeed. it
might w.,]1 be viewed. from the vantage Derrida voices abo,'e on the "effects of
truth, ' as a resolutely philosophical refu",'. For Derrida's rejoinder to Teubner
would no doubt be that systrllls theory---e\"fn on Luhmann's terms---<:annot
have it'   and eat it too. The qUfStion, as Luhmann characterizes it,
i' that "an operation that uses distinctio", in order to designate something
we will .. I] 'obse",·at ion.· W. are caught once again, therefore, in a circle: the
distinction between operation and observation appears itself as an element of
obse""at;on"" Empiricism, in other words, mmt always give W3)' to contingent
(and decon<tructiblej self-referen". From a Derridean point of view. then.
the adyantage that Teubner finds in Luhmann', historically oriented analysis
would simply be referred back to an empirici,m whose untenability Luhmann
himself mak .. clear. Luhmann cannot maintain that "there exist, noobser".,-
independent, gi"en reality'" and at the same time hold that "self-reference
designate. the unity that an element. a proc,"", or a 'ystem i. for itself. ' For
itself' means independent of the cut of observation by others."" If it is ind..-d
the .. se that "both attributiOn<. observer attribut;"n and object attribution, are
possible: and that "the result. can therefore be conside,..,d contingent .... then
M[ ... 241
this means. from a Derridean point of vi..-w. that the empiricism upon which
any hisloricism depends is rrnd .. ed permanenlly dysfunctional and Ihal whal
we ..... aliy dealing wilh is. undecidability. in th. domain of mean·
ing. about what son. of anribUlions arr mad •. by whom and 10 woom. and
wilh what particular effect •. Thus, when Luhmann hold.lhal "Ihe difference
between self· reference in Ihe obje,I and self· .. f .. enc. in Ihe analy.i., between
the observed and Ihe obsen'ing system, com" 10 be reHected in the problem
of complexily" " whal Ihis really means. in o.,rridean tenm. is "comes 10 be
"Heeted in Ihe deconstructibilily of the "ery distinctions upon which such a
formulation depend •. "
Moreo"er, Derrida would surely be th. first to argue thai ""en if .u,h dis·
tinctions are lenabl. in "anal)1ical " tern" (10 take Luhmann', procedure at its
word), when they come to be expressed ;n Lmg,mge, then our ability 10 draw
dear boundari .. belween what Luhmann ,alis Ihe "empirical," "analj1iC'.lI," and
"semantic" dimensions of ob .. rvalion/des.cription is only furth .. eroded. More
precisely, Ihere are three orders of complexity here: the first order, which is the
autopoietic self· reference of any system that makes self· ref .. ence and hetero·
reference a product ofil. own .. If· ref .. ential dosure; Ihe SKond order, which
indude. autopoietic 'ystems that, in addition to first· order self· reference, u ..
the fom, of to proc .... complexity; and the third order, which indudes
,ulopoietic sy>lems thai, in addition 10 using basal self· reference and meaning,
also use     To acknowledge as much. from a Derridran point of view, i,
.imply to take account of what we ha\'e already dis.cuM as the "contaminating"
force of ilerability, which miligates against the kind of conceptual ideality that
would appear to be in play in Luhmann's assumption that the "empirical," "ana·
Ipi,a1, " and "semantic" dimension. can be so neatly separated, Hence, Derrida
insist, in Limited hIe. that "there can be no rigorou, belw .. n a ",;emifie
theory ... and a theory of language" and that, in fact, "it is more '""ientific' to
lake thi' limit, if it i. one. into accoum .nd 10 tr.-at it as a point of depanure for
rethinking this or lhat received concept of '""ienee' and of 'objecti,·ily.' ',",
What is invoh'ed here, then- to relUrn to the text of Derrida' , with which
w. began- i, .certain difference belween Derrida and Luhmann in relation to
"the grammar of the .,,'em." a phrase Ihat .rises. as Peggy Kamuf poin" out in
her introduction to Wilhom A/;bi, at lhe yery moment of Derrida', entry into
U.S, academic di .. ourSf , For Derrida imisIs, at that moment in 1¢6--<l' a mat ·
ter of principle that appears to be maintained nearl)' forty years laler- Ihat"]
don'l know what a grammar of the .,,'ent can be. " As Kamuf surmise •• Derrida
"that he doe. not know what such a Ihing can be-except a reduction,
a cancellation of the wry Ihing being called Of course, Luhmann
242 CAR1 WOlff
would r ... pond that the only way any of us are e"en around todedare such an
inability at all is precisely on the ba,i, of a prior "reduction" of envi ronmental
compl.xity. one that provides the autopoietic condition, of possibility for rais-
ingsuch question, (or ''''Y'lu.,tion,) in the first place. Or in luhmann's words.
"On. must be capable of generating both continuity and di=ntinuiTy. which
;. easier in reality than in theory.""
,. In Ho"""y.   Cj"OOrgs. and Womm. 4)-M.
2. In Ihi> ronne<,ion, my remar" her. or. a co nlin" .. ion of my .... mpllo .lign .y.-
"m, thoo'Y.nd po.Hlructuroli,tlh..>or;' more g<n ... ny in my pre,iou'IWO boo ...
In C";,ieol Environm",". thi' look th. for m not j LlSI of >epa,," ch. p"" d.rulN to
      ond v ... I •• nd Luhmann (on lheo"", lu.nd).oo Foucault .nd o.kuL< (on
Ih. other), but .1", of on ofLuh mann'. anJ Del ...... , •• differ<nc""
., Ih<r con be ... "" out by "'.nlion 10 lhe ,heowicollopog"phy of "the fold:
In my 1 .. 1 book. >lnimal   the f<>cu, ",'as   not prim>rily on Luhm.nn bUI
on Motu"n •• nd Vor.t. ( ,00, 10. I."",r ex"'nl. Greg0'Y 1I;I1<><>n).nd howlh<ir
<'YOi u'ion.'Y'heory of the<m.rgence of"lingui>lic domain." con help u.lo put ",me
me.t on Ih. bon", ofD<rriJ.,.lheory of the rcl .. ioruhip bElw •• n >ignificotion ...
I .... ce "nlct ure anJ lhe qu."ion of nonhu ma n and pu"hum.n .ubj<>cli"ity.
) . !l.I<<1 ... "Why Sy".",,1" 61.
4. On Ihi' qUe>l ion of tho (m""phy>icall ".Iu. of the ,·oice. rerhap. no tri;mgu]" ion
i> more in.tructiw lhan th .. of D<rrida, I. L Au>! in •• nd S .. nl.y c .. ·.n. who i.
concerned to llef. nJ ,h. ogoin" ",0" he vi.,,·, o. o.,rrid •• own met. poy>ic.1
for on o,'<rvi"", of , hi, lriongut.'ion .nd ,h. ".1«> inyo!>·ed for lhe
q .... ,,,ln of thesub;.ct in 10 diff.,,,,,, medi., .... my ..... y "When You C.n 'I
Iteli ...... Your Eye>."
S. o.,rri<k Of Grammatolog),. 84.
o. l.Jrob. 1h, LDgic oJUf', 1-2.
7. 1><"iJ" Of Grammatology.
8. IbKl., lLi. n. J.
9. Ibtd .. 84.
to. s.., the introduction '0 my edi, ed collection. Z",,"tolcrie5, xi .
\I. LOOm.nn. "ll<wnstmction • • Second-Oroer Ob"""'ing," '0'.
12. s.., " I:conomia of Gifl-Po.i,ivi,y of ru"ic •. "
lJ. 1><nid., Wi,,,,,", >llibi. 210 , 7 2; .mph .. i, in original . Se •• oo in ,hi. conn«,ion
Mchive Fn.r.
,",. 1><"iJ" Wilhout Alibi. 7>; <mph."", in origin.1.
IS. IbKl .. '36; <mph.,., in o rigin,!.
10. Ibid .. '.15 .
'7. IbCd., 73; <mpha.i> in origin.1.
18. Thi. i, probably ,he roin'-on w;,hdI>wing t he thinking ohheeyent from.n on' oJ-
in.i" onco ogoin on 'he differenco bet"' ... n lJerrid.. .nd Ll<kULc----or. for
t lut mOller md from , ",noin, more contomrorary n ntog<'. the diff"",n<e b<twl'<n
Luhmann . nd V.,,·I .. For an O",!'Iiew of ,he.. qu .. t ion., ...., my Criliml E"viro" -
  .. p. and, from .nother   Hamen in 'hi' volum •.
19. Luhmann, 67.
20. Ibid" 48.
21.lbid .. 215.48.
22. Schwan it., "System. Theory occorJ ing '0 NilJ •• Luhman n: 146.
"3. l'k1-rido, "Signa,ure hem Conl<x,." J.
'-\. Ibid .. ;'-1I.
' 5. lJerrid., " lliff"ranc. : "".
26. l'k1-rido, "S!",«h .nd I'henome"" ... 2&-27.
2,. lJerrida," Afterword: in LimilN I"c .. 119;<mph....,. in origin.l.
28. Ibid .. 116, 148; in orisin.l.
29. s.e. luhmann, Social   139> '45. Luhmann g<><> on to, on his difference
wi,h Dernd". «i'ique of , hi ... t of problem .. bu, only by way of • qui'e reJucti'"
re.di ng of Derrid .... pprooch. I will r<tum '0 this roint •• nd t he .take. in,ok..J in
i" below.
jO. Sch·a nit .. "S)",'em. Throry ",,<ording '0 NilJa. Luhmann:'5J.
Jr. Ibid .. ' 56.
p. s.e. Luhmonn. Social \0: "S)"em. mu" rore wi,h 'he diff",ence betwt'm
iJen,;,y . nd difference ",·hen , hey reproduce ,hem .. I,· ...... If-referen,ial 'y,l<m>;
in other word., reproduction is t he ma""gemen' of thi' diff""ence. Thi. i. no<.
primarily , heor<lical bu, • 'horoughly prac'ical problem. and it is rdeyan, not only
fo r m"'ni ng 'J"lem •. "
J5- Ibid .. 25, ,6.
j4. - Sr>l<m differen' iotion: luhm,nn wri'", - i, no, hing more ,han the r"P"i'ion
wi,hin .y"<tru of 'he differelKe betw .. n     ""d environment. Through i" til<
\l'hoJo .y"em u.,,, i, .. lf •• <n,ironmen' in formi ng its o\l'n ,ul»)""<,,,, and 'hordly
achi"'''' g ... ter improb.bility on 'he levd of tho>< .ul»y>1<m. by mOl< rigorou.Jy
{,Itering on ul'imOlely uncon,rollable environment. AccorJingly, a diffe«n,ia,.d
'ystem i. 00 longe..- .imply compo><d of. certain number of pan. and ,il< rel,,;"n,
among th 'm: rathet, i, i , compo><d of. ",Iatively lal);O numb.....- of oper>tionally
')"'tem/enyironmen' J ifferenc .. , which o>ch, along diffe«nt cUlli ng
line>, recon>lrUct the ... hok ' )">tem •• tho uni'y of ,ul»y.t<m and environmen'"
(Social JI.
35. '''ink her •• for e .. mple, of th e N,pster contr"' .... 'y . nJ how change> in ,echnology
h,ve forced orenego'iation of ,he -i nterpenetration· oh'Conomic . nd leg.rl .y>l<m,
on the 'p«ific . uboy .. emic ,it< of intell<ctual p rurerl)' law---» d • .uc . ... mpl< of
how ')"I1<m., folk>wi ng luhm, nn', . n. ly>i. of -interpenetra' ion,· make us< of each
o,il<r·. own rompi<xi'y '0 enh.nce lheir o,,"n for ,h. pu..,.,..." if )"Olllik<, of conllol-
ling (or at .,"', - sturing") the oth...-.
244 CARY WOlff
}Ii. Luhmann. Social   H' omph.,i. in original.
37. A> T oubnor, • di.tingui.h..J logol .. hoL". has r<>int..J out •• utopoiotic ><><iol .)'. -
tm>! thri.'e on puado> in the >en", tha, "de-par..!oxifKation m<an. to invent Il<">\'
di"inctiom ",hieh do not deny th. paradox but it tempor.rily, .nd thu,
rel i. ". it of it> p,r.lyzing powor; .., thot. for ... mpk. "in [uro"""" 1''1:,1 hillory,
imtitutionali,..J di" inctiom I><t"""n noturo! and PO' iti,.. i..J w or. c ur",ntl y. di!tinc-
tiom kgislation and adjudication. have pruduc..J their impr ... ivocultur..!
. chi .. emen" d"pit< or prffi!<ly beea"". of ,t.., log:tl paradox" ("EconomiC! of
C ift- ""'itivity of   321.
}S. Luhmann. ""h. Paradox of   Sy>t<m.: Sy-S4.
39. Luhmann. Social S,.,lmos, 60.
40. D<rrid" 65-66.
4'. Luhm.nn. Social 60; .mpho!.i. in original
42. Ibid., 6J.
4J. Ibid., 6,.
44. Ibid., 6,. Luhmann ho", cit<> Grogory B.t<>on. Step, 10 all f.rolcgy of Mi",L
45. Ibid., 75;<mph ..... in origindl.
46. Ibid., my ompho, is.
47. Ibid., 65.
48. On this poin' • ..,., Luhmann, Soro,I J;": 'On thi' N.i. on< c.n th.n di>1in -
between, on tho one h.nd, organic .nd nourophy>iological .,.,t<m •... and,
un ,n. oth".l"ychic anJ >ocioi .,.,1<m •• ", hich are con>ti,uteJ by the production
mJ p""'",mg of me.ning." Luhmann'. pomt I.! th.t both tl'P'"' of .ptom •• re ",Jf-
rcler""ti.!. but for tho lattor. "mNning enable. on ongoing ref.renee to t he 'Y"-"'"
i, .. lf and to a more or I .... 1..00"'00 on>ironment." In a now 00s01.1< vOC'abu),ry.
wo would say th.t me.ning enabl •• a ' repr<>mtation" of tn. .y".m/<>nvironm<nt
rel. ,ion to the 'y".m it .. lf I",hich i. kept from /xillg repre",n .. tionali" pr'-'<isdy
by tho in"",al"bk f.oc' of .. If-reference of.u .,.,tem.).
49. Ibtd., 61; .mph •• i, in origin..! .
So. Ib>d., 7'0. 6>; .mph •• i, in original.
S'. Luhmann. "How Can the MinJ I'anicip.;l," in Communic .. ion?" '''''. lJo.
S2. Ibtd., ';11 .
S}. Luhmann. Social   59.
54. Ibid., 9&; in ur iginal.
5S. Ibtd., 99; .mpha.i. in originol.
S6. Ib>d., "9.
S7. Ibid.
ss. Luhmann. "How Can the Mi nd Panicipale in Communic. t ionl" llJ.
S9. Luhmann. Social   27'.
60. Ibid.
6,. LuhmlUln, "How Can tho Mind Parl icip.1< in CommunicatKml" '7}. Though J
m nnot .. plo"" t hi. ilero in any dot.i), it i, wonh nolins, os Luhm. nn argu.., th ..
"The .-.Iation.nip of tn. 3CrommoJati<ln of communic .. ion to , h. mind . nd the
un",oid.ble   dyn.mic> .nd of soci<ly i • .!", .. Iho
l lul ch.Dg .. ;n fonm in which become> compreh.mibk 10 Ih. mind.
from 'imple ., >und'io pi<1orial .. rip" 10 phonct ic scrip" .nd fin. lIy 10 prinl. mark
Ihr",hold. of oocict.1 <voiul;on lhal. onc< c",.",d. lr;S!"" imme" .. impul .... of
comrl.xilY in , very .hon t ime" (Ibid .. 1741.
6,. Luhmann. Socinl 16" in migin.!.
6l. Ibid .. 9"
6.i. Ibid"ljO.
,;s. Ibid .. 14].
66. Ibid .. '40-42. 47.ljl.
6]. Ibid" 40.
6S. Ibid.
,;.,. Ibid .. 14].
70. IJerrid,. Limiled / ..... 4
; .mpha.;. in original.
1'. Luhmann. 16,.
]1. Ibid .. I60.
]]. Ibid" 161-';).
74. Ibid .. 160; . mph.,.., in origin.!.
75. Ibid .. ".
;'6. Ibid" 9 ..
77. He",. '<IT)" ",hem"ically, on. ,",'ouid find Rodol ph G.",h." ",.ding of Derridot at
OD< .nd of the .pectrum . nd Rich.rd Rofl y'." , h. othor. For, weful """ ..... iew of
t ho",diff"onl W')" of ",.ding lkrr;J. ..... ROfl/. " IJerrid." .nd "Two Mo.",n&,:
in E=p"/I HriMgg<r.
7'1. for the former. ><e. for .",mplo. luhm:mn. An a. a 5<xi"i Sr,/<m. '/S-'oo. 15J-}8;
fo r th. for .xample. luhm.nn. "lhcon"roct"'n .. Second-Order Db-
",,,·ing." . nd Social 4Y-47. which""""" 10 ""do ... lJe"id •• ",.ding of
Hu"",rl in Spur/! a"d Pitmomw". only 10 .",imi",,, Deroo •• wo rk 10 -. Ihe"'..,. of
. ign. ( theory. ",u<1urali,m)."
79. IJerrid., "'E.l ing Well:" "'i.-I]; .mph .... in original.
So. IJerrid •• Of Cmmm"loIw. 7.
g,. lJe"id •• -And Say Anim. 1 R •• rondedl" ,,6. Il]; my .mph .....
81. IJerrid., 104--j. n. )2.
S} . T.ubner. -uonomics of Gin- POIilil'ily of IU"ic • ." JIi.
84. Ibid .. 3"-l8.
Luhmann, - Th. Cogeili," Program of Con>lrll<livi.m." IJ.I.
86. Luhmann, on Moo"n;t)', '9.
87. Luhmann, l3.
88. Luhmann, QI,,,wnl;on. on Aloo<mit)', 48.
8<> . Luhmann, j7.
"". IJerrid •• Limiled /""., lIS.
9'. K.muf in lJeuiJa, Wilhout Alibi. 6.
9'. Luhmann, Arl 0'" Sociol Spl<m, '56.
Compkx Visuality
111e Radical MiddlrgrOlmd
H. w. lk.d into tho .hro,h 01 fl.m •. Bullhoy did not bit< Inlo hi. fl •• h. "ro .. od him
"nd .n!ull.d him withoul h • ., or (ombustion. With ", 11 .1. wilh humlli .,ion. with 10"0<. h.
und."tood th., Ito too " •• an . pp •• ,. n«. d, by " nothOf,
  "Th. ( i",ulor Ruins"
I'm happy that the roilo .. ha" e allowed my rambling meditation to end this
mlume but a,king that I try to summari7.'. to round out the volume. or
to proYide any kind of c/o",,,. which----as this ""'r will amply d.monslrate--!
am neithrr able nor inclined to do. What follows. then. i. in.tead a kind of
100 .. but looping th .. ad. of the kind that .ticks out from the back of a complex
It i, always a que.tion a, to whether a loose thread like this can simpl y
be plucked off or whethrr-a, I would like to think-it marks the ongoing
,'Ulnerabilities of a fabric (here. to ,atch on other thing> (h ....
visual culture .tudies and ideology critiqud and to alur the pattern. Of cour ...
such yuln .. can .lso be its abUitiN, the w.y it 'tay, grows .nd
change .. engage. and i. engaged by it. environment.
So here I (and almo.t by definition fail) not to conclude but 10 srart 0>"'1',
or as Foucault described hi. method, "to begin and begin again, to and
to be mistaken, to go back and rework everythi ng. "' One might even say that
thi' account work. a, a rough definition of sci .... ntifi, ""'thod, at le ... t insofar
a, scientific "progress of knowledge" narratiYes demand that all theorie, be
shown, in the fullness of time, to be radically inadequate if not fundamentally
wrong, In thi ' Yersion, i, • parliculady productive way of being wrong.
continually "TOng, and of fallin&lf.iling forward.
But how doe, the notion of remaking and ""." staning "".,---or in t.,m.
of knowledge. of sustaining "beginners mind" - jibe with tho famousl), con-
sr"!"n,,, nature of 'ystems, which are mostly stuck with what they inherit
and can n,,'er truly begin again? At issue her. is the tension "",wre" en,.l-
gencr and embodiment- the ten,ion that generate. both thi' volume and
the ')"tem, that neocybernetic. engag"', For example, "huma"" a, you call
them" (to use William Burroughs's phra .. ) cannot renegotiate the most fun -
damental term. of our own embodiment;' w<? cannot "go back" and reject
the evolution that ha, rendered u, unable to tly (as a two-year -old I know
has recrntly been having difficulty accepting) or decide that, after much
considflation, we'd rather not bt carbon-ba""d life form. after all. But then
again, how doe. this apparently uncontrowrsial account jibt with the nar-
rati ", that we might someday transfer some essence of who we are into a
silicon-ba",d system (that is, a computer of .ome kind) or the recognition
that in t<rm. of our "extended phenotw: we hJ\'e alwa)" been po.thuman

A diale<:tical answer, already suggested above, might begin with the rec-
ognition that this kind of comradiction and complexity are not only those
that threaten the imegrityof a .ystem (whether from the outside or i",id. ), but
also the principles of a system's organization and grov.,h. In particular. though.
I want to reject a tendency to situate (in one real place or one conceptuall
disciplinary place) all ellyj,e,,,,,em of roiling, Wild W"'t, edge-of-chao, com-
plexity that acts as a fecund though dangerous matrix for the emergence of
new systems (the space of binh or continual adolescence, as it were), and in
another place (even if only an asymptotic-ally approachable .pace J. Ihe system,
rhem"ll'I" (whfle, one might expect, a kind of fully achieved embodiment
or maturity must give way continually to deathly ",nility). To say "I walll to"
rejfft this is also to acknowledge a failure, the intensity of the desire mark-
ing the extent to which 1 remain structured by the dichotomy a, a constitu-
tiw contradiction. Certainly .nyone and everyone involved in the projfft of
neocybtrnetics must r«:ognize as a first principle the paradoxical dependence
of openness on dosure and "ice WISa and aloll g with it the ongoing tension
bttw..,n emergence and embodiment. C.ll it 3 paradox or a contradiction or
a tension or a dialfftic----<lr .i mply a question, The question i. both what driw,
nrocybemetics to bt born   it giw' way to other knowledge formations
that will ,ueered it. Whfle [ haw in mind to look for an answ.-r is in something
like. kind of continual midlife crisis in which one is nonethebs most ali""
(my tlagrant attempt to make my own condi tion exemplary). Thi' project
tak .. in the no-man', land between emergence and embodiment and
continues to bt guided by a perversity that would refuse the coding of dosur.
with science and masculinity and of openness Wilh a feminiud humanisml
248 tU
What can an fXpiorat ion of of contrm(KIrary visual cuitUTe
tell us about notions of a nd ')'stematicit( I, visuality a
  or i, it o.,ing syst.matized in poSlmooem cult ure? How is visual com-
(th. complexity of vi,ual image, themsel\' es) related to complex visuality
(the complrxityof t he muhipk networks in which "i,uality I find
the resolution of these questions lies in coming to grips with their
ambiguity. which I characterize in visual terms as a radical middleground. Along
the way. I argue that we must continue to displace the metaphor of visuality
that has informed neocybemetic notion of th. observer.
Visual complrxity------or complex "j,uality--seem, to be a signature of post-
modern mlture.' Visual complexity seems to be as rife all arou nd me-in the
real streets and people and stores and signs ofthe city in which I live-as it i.< in
t he imagined world, of film, television. and dr.ams. Th"", observations suggest
further. intrrlockingsets of qu.stion" How are compl.xity and rep .. "'ntation,
of complexity related! representations of complexity necessarily compln
themselv." or is it possible 10 have simpl. representation, of Thi'
laner could be th. ca.., when a quantitat ive comple";ty come. to stand
for and even 10 displace th. qua!itati"e!y complex. Arguably thi.< is what happms
in t he " precession of simulacra." t he ..... r-.xpanding generation and saturation
of commodities (indudi ng images) driwn by logic of capitalism. But th.
relat;omhip quantity and quality is itself complex. Vimal complexity
seen" also 10 0., Cool/li'WICI! with and to parridpmc ill complex visuality- that
is. complexit y comidered .ntirely within the vi sual may be a kind of real reho.
a kind of subroutine. of t he complexit y of the new,ori<. into which
visua] ity is wired. Coordination and parridpmim' tend to displacr rcpr=nld-
lion all togeth ... Fi nal ly. to what extent is the (ompiexity we think we see an
emergent phenomenon in itself, and to what extent i. an emergent episteme-.
way of seeing----<onditioni ng us 10 notice and p a (ompiexity that was
to some extent always already present !
To begin with what comes most ... ily to hand. ViSUdl complexil)' may well
be associated with and rapidly (hanging and moving images. such as
th. fast -cut mu,ic videos oft.n regarded as icons of postmodernism. The best
claim to complexity in these cases i. probably the continual perceptual and
cogniti", juggling and consteUating that the ba,rage of images re<[uire. of the
\"iewn It seem, funny now that modernist mhmal critics haw mo .. ollen cast
such a "iew., as     usually in contradistinction 10 the supl"'""dly more
acti," .. ad .. of literary lexlS, More aptly for poSimodernily, cuhural theorist
jonalhan BeUer has prol"'""d thall he work required of the isactually the
exemplary fonn of labor under what he calls the Cinematic Mode of Produc-
tion, a mode in which atlention----especially "isual atlention---<onfers nlue on
Obj<'<:IS,' I wiU return to thi' idea below,
Visual complexity may also be fractal, involving orchestrations of pattern
across ",ale, Here again, we can stan by referring the complexity to the ocular
and neurological fact of the multiple refocusings required of the view .. of
an image that cannot be held together in a 'ingle glance. To take a familiar
example, the fractal paintings of Jackson Pollock seem to me the height of a
panicula rly formal i5tj modernist complexity, Polioc k' , erpressio nism evol "ed to
co,' .. the picturel'lane unifonnly with an almost perfectly ""If-,imilar, abstract
field- that is., hi' malUre paintings Iftain the same density of detail at all 5(al ..
from the "ery ,mall to th.large, Thi' has been confirmed by computer anal)'Si,
of the fraclal dim,mions of Pollock', paintings,'
E"en so, it would seem thatthi. uniformity makes such work Ie .. complex
than other images-including the typicall y postmodern----lhat may be just a.
fractally den"" but are also more hetrrogeneoll'. Such complexity is both en-
acted and thematized nicely in the iconic p"'tmooern film Blallc Rwmcr, who""
director 'poke of making the film as a""mbling a "700-layer In addilion
to a m;""-", -..-,,,e that is often visually busy and V'JriousJy heterogeneou" the
film offers ","eral crucial scenes in which the small i, conspicuou,ly linked to
Ihe large by looming in and refocru;ing- <m a tiny origami figure, the minute
details of. snapshot, the micro",opic serial number printed around the ba""
of a single artificial hair, This fraclalla),.,ing in scale (. kind of complexity in
it""lf) is linked both to a recursi ... 1001' whereby Ihe film Ifnec15 on
it""lf as an anifaCl of visual technolog)' (this reflexivity constituting another
kind of complexity) .nd, ma)'br somewhat more surprisingly, 10 an ongoing
meditation in th. film .bout the ambiguous and muhil'ly cro""d boundar}'
between the nalUral and the arlifici.I, a problematic undecidability that also
yields anoth .. kind of complexity, Curiously, an ambiguated nalure/cullure
boundary i. also precisely Ihat from which Jackson Pollock wove hi' fractal
paintings, by working the phy"ical propeni., of hi' paints (for example, their
tendency, wnen nung, to form hairl ike or globby trail, or to crackle as
Ihey dry), For us moderns anyway, there may be something almost archetypally
mml'lex---<onceptually .nd aesthet ically_bout thi' kind of nature-mhure
0 ... 11 (bottom) from liKk.on
PoUoc k' . p.1inlln! Numb<,
' 4 with
nooch aotk (t"lll and chaotic
(middlo) drip ..
tho "Pollockl,.'"
machl" •. (.0.11 "'clion, (. ' J cm
• '0 em. HI p.rml" ion of t ho
Polio< k -Kr .,n", ",,,,,I., >On I
AIII<1' RiSht< Sodoty. Now Yo"' .)
Visual complexity may also involve what could be called visual hybridity
or multi -modality. The mo51 obvious example. here are interpenetrations of
text and image and of reality and He" again the multiple modalities
or dimensions of the image are linked to "ariOll' perceptual and neurological
modes that must be coordinated in order to engage them fully: imagine a pilot
landing a plane. looking back and forth between multiple read-out """en,
and the real ""ene out the front window. Hybridity he" might aho refer to
cases where more sophisticated kinds of "isual   are required.
such as when multiple cult ural and cross-cultmal frameworks are involwd;
complexity here derives from the fact that we do not inhabit a si ngle world
with many things in it but multiple w",lds. and we ourselves are neees",rily
multiple. (Thest points coul d again be illustrated by Blade RUlrn,-",. famous
for its visual mixing of a city that is both los Angeles and New York. Asia and
the West.)
But e"en in the rdatively 'imple case of interpenetrations of reality and
image, not. that-in the case of films. for example-----one woul d more a"u-
ratdy ha"" 10 speak of the interpenetration of im<lge, of reality and ''''''g'' of
im"Ers. This already suggests some of how "imality is itself comple:<: images
COMPlU 251
add a r.cursi\-.Ioop to the world th")' inhabi" ",'.n at the neurological 1 ..... 1,
this that watching a film, for .xample, ",ean, coordinating being both
awake and a.l .. p, at least in",far as one', locomotor ""pon .. , to ftlmed imag ..
are ,witched off, as in dream., It is not", much the image> them .. h'e, that a",
complex but that imag .. makethe world more complex, or in NikJas Luhmann',
more seneral formula, "part. of the world (or for that matt .. any unity) have
higher retlecti,-e potential than the unity it ..   It ,hould be added here that
visual imagery (and with it, the notion of con"iousne .. -a.-repre5entation)
can be conside",d a ,mail addition to a world already built of multiple =ur-
siveloop', a world that never wa, a unit)', In any ca .. , though, it has bffome
commonplace to .. fer to the ongoing ""pl",ion ofimag .. and image-making
,,,,hnologies as definiti,'e for a modernity characterized by Heidegger as "the
Age of th. World Picture" and for a postmodernity construed by D.bord',
"Society of the Spectacle," Baudrillard', "Pr",e"ion of or Beller',
"Cinematic Mode of Production, "
Throughout modernity and postmodernity, visuality has been increasingly
.. parated oUi from othe"ealm .. incre",ingly commodified and mediated by as-
",ned t",hnologi ... To take an .arlyaample, Fnel painting in the Renaissance
helped to commodify art and contributed to prying it (Iit.rally and otherwi .. )
away from the real ms of religion and ritual: thus b)' the century
"aesthetics' was nameable .. a "I>arate realm unto it .. lf. Visual ity has been
both increasingly distingui,hed as a realm unto it self and inc", .. inglywired into
the ,ircuits of capital and social relations: modern systematization is marked
by this simultaneous increa .. in the independence and interdependence of
Following th.line of 'y'tem. and autopoiesis theory, William RaS(h cit .. billlo-
gist Robert Rosen', mandate -to view compl""ily not a, an 'intrinsic property
of a ,y"em [or] of a s)'stem de"ription' but rather .. an observer/ob:serwd
",Iationship invol"ing the choice, that an obserwr make., including the ehoi,e
of what constitutes a 'yste", to begin with."' Accordingly, when 1 haw wanted
to .. tablish the complexity of an image or an obi"'t (ahove) , I have begun
by coordinating it with complexity in a ,ubje"'. starting with an ocular and
Rasch adds Luhmann', account---{}f evanescence of communication
in a social system- that a sy"em', element. are not stable units (like
ceUs or atoms or indi"iduals) but e ... nts Ihal vani,h as soon a, they appear ....
The statement elKapsulates one of post-slructuralism's mo,t transformative
principles. It. general account of .y.tematicity also conforms so perffCtly 10 a
hasic description of ,'isual me<lia like film- that i., something who", elements
are "ewnts that ,-an ish as soon as they appear"- that we are thlm", back to again: the account seems to ha,'e been by the cinematic
age in which it was generate<!. Note further that Luhmann's statement can
taken a. an ontological assenion of a general truth, something like the daim
that "system. really niSi in the world. as follows." BUI the "alrment can ju,t
as easily be taken as 3 definitional one, somelhing more like "the term 'ysTem
shall be defined as follows." On one hand, then, it's a ,eferential statement
about the world. on the OIh ... a ",If-referential Siatement aboul language. No
doubt Ihis apparent Iwo-facedness is characteri,tic of both the .tatement and
Ihr 'Y''''''' II ,le=lbe" and the exploration of thi s apparenl resonance belween
obser',.er and owrve<!- in broad .. terms. the way language "bears   to
the world-i, one of the mo,t paradigm-changing possibilities for the projtCI of
neocyo.rnOlic •. " Tn any case. the not;"n of     offers a Ihird way of
understanding Luhmann's statement, one that displaces both reference and ",If-
reference. What kind, of language games i. the statement pla)"ing? What does
it do. and with and against what other kinds of statement, doe. il operate' For
e""mple, we might con sid .. he .. how Luhmann'sstalement makes temporal -
ity itsdf- «evenlness" ----<:ome to constitute complexity in relalion to a kind of
,patiality positeJ as a ,table and knowable structure. Thi' positing of slrue/ur,
as .imple is a power move specific to how post -structuralism (the word itself
no less than Ihe theoretical mowment it names ) works to push structuralism
into the past- pre<ci",ly. one might say, to hisloriciu il.
For Luhmann (going back to Ra>ch', a«ount ), "comploxily, in turn, is seen
a. an obse,.,.er's inability to define <completely all these element" conn"tions
and interactions. , .. Within the matrix of oru.,rm/ii", m ",lecTI,," there is no
totalizing perspective or omni>cient ",I"tor. Each act of observation is em-
in what il observes. "" Again. this is a crucial principle. bUI thinking
performatively .bout Ihe statement- here, thinking what context it posits itself
against- yields a more complex and contradictory picture. It is only again't
what I would call the fantasy of a disintrresteJ .nd lran>cendent ly objective
persprctiw- a fantasy thai ,hould be historically identified as sl""i li, to and
deliniti'" for imperiali't modernity- Ihat complexity can come 10 be define<!
as embedde<!ne .. , or rather, as Ih. contradiction between tran>cendence and
embeddedne". Thi' contradiction has been characteri,ticof modern Western
,ubjecti"ityal least since the lair eighteenth cenlury. "
Phy.ici,t and ceUular automata guru Stephen Wolfram>. definition of yi -
.ual complexity also coordinates an observed and an obse".er in the act of
In everyday language, when we .. y that something seem. compl.,. what we
Iypically mean i. that we haw not managed to find any .imple description
ofit-<>r at least of those feature< in which we happen to be interested ....
When we are presented with a compl.,. image, our eyes tend to dwell on
it. presumably in an dfon to giw our brain. a chance to extract a .imple
If we can find no 'imple fealUre< whatSOfver-a. in the ca .. of'imple
randonme __ then we tend 10 10 .. intere,t. But somehow the images that
draw u. in the mo.t-and typically that we find mo.t aesthetically ple .. -
ing----are Ihose for which some features are .imple for u. to de.nibe. but
others ha"e no ,hon d.,niption that can be found by any of our .tandard of ,·i.ual perception. "
Try to set a,ide. for the moment, the bli the trans-hi.torical and trans-
cultural uni,'er .. lizing of what "we' find pleasing. More intereslingi, ".,hat seen"
10 be circular aboul Ihi' account----.complexity i. whal interest. us and whal
interests u. is complex-and paradoxical: complexily is the neces.s.aryentangle-
ment of the simple and the complex. Thi' circula rity and paradoxicality are
not necessarily logical flaw, bUI fmcrs of the reflexi,'e 'y'tem. im'olved. The
paradox can be d"'doped by obseniing that if whal we are intere.ted in is com-
plexity ilself, Ihen an image that we can ea.ily identify as complex is thereby
Irs, complex than one whose complexity we find il difficult or impossible to
Wolfram', approximate definition of visual complexity a.> th. ability to cap-
lure and hold the eye and brain (a colloqui al term for this i. who) accords well
with Beller'. Cinematic Mod. of Production   C M ~ ) , . ince the CMP·. primt di=-
tive is to catch and hold attention- to make the viewer work, much as Ihe flower
makes the bee work. By Ihe way. bees making honey i, a common early modern
metaphor for aesthetic labor, and it is more than. metaphor, reall)', .ince in
both ca ... we are talking about a kind of co-evolut ion and interpenetration of
.ystem •. The tlower becomes pan of Ihe bee'. metaboli,m •• the bee be<:omes
part of Ihe 1I0wer', reproductive . ystem. Vi,uality become, comple. as more
'ystem. are wired through it and as il is wired th rough more other system.; as it
becomes the . wilchboJrd for ps)'ches, identilies, ",onomies: asmliure and soci -
ety increasingly reproduce vi.ually and have a vi.ual metabolism. For e.ample,
J haw been repeatedly .truck by how much this ob",rvalion seem, to apply to
the U.S. in\'asion and occupation oflraq (during which this """y WdS written
and "",ise<I). Early on. it .. emed Yery much like the image of the just · captured
and hagg.trd SaddJm Hussein on th. cO\'er of American   was the
political capital for which billiom of dollars and thousands of lives had been
spent; later, the photographs from Abu Ghraib ... fTe both ""ords and instru-
ments of torture, images that "backfired" to undercut the U.s. rep .... ntation
ofit .. lf asa "l iberator" and to fuel resistance to the occupation.
If "isual complexity has to be defined in part by its ability to interest us, we
would do well to come to terms with babelle Stengers's observation that" "in-
tere,,' actually derives from i"leresS(, ' to be sit uated between.'" "To interest
5Omrone in 5Omething," Stengers contends, "means., first and abo\'e all to act
in such a way that this thing---apparatus, argum.nt, or hypothesis in the case-
of scientists------<:an concern the per50n, int''''ene in his or her life, and eventu-
ally transform   In the case of science, Stenge" continues., works
not just to configure scientists but to constellate "the multipl. relations be-
tw""n scientific, social, industrial, and other interests," and thus -.very inter-
esting proposition redistributes the rdations of signification. creates meaning
but destroys it as well ,"" Notice that like the word ;nt<'l'e<I, the word ",.,,"-
;"g-and the word ",,,,U,,tj"g----al>o refer to a that brings
us back to the notion of complexity as .mbedd.dn .... I'm tempted to say that
at ",n" I.",1 there is what might be called an anthropic principle at work her.
in th. sense- thai we find ourselves----and life it,.,lf-necessarily in the middle
of the unive ... , in terms of tim., in terms of oc,le, and especiall y in term,
of a t''''p.rature gradient, where the middle i, an edge-of-chaos betw""n or-
der and disorder. Much more narrowly, though, I want to lit.ralize Stengers's
point and d.fine vi.ual complexity as a         as that which throws
figure -and-ground into question. NOif that by grOll"" here J mean not sim-
ply that which is less int".,ting (in other word. , that which is implied in the
term b"ckgro""d) but that against which a figure is made to appear, a frame
or framework.
In recent test, of the visualpe"eption of Asian, and Westeme", members
ofboth group, shown simple computer-animated imagesofa,soned fi.h
swimming in a tank and .,ked todesuibe what they saw. " Westerne" tended to
hl.ntify a particul ar fish (the biggest one, generally) as more prominent and 10
make it the protagonist in their account" while Asians tended to describe
collecti\'e relat;"mhi l's and patt.rns among the fuh and their environment. To
COMPlU '55
makr this     even morr so. Westerners unded to me ..
figure, Asians ground.
L.t's this result at facr value for moment and ask what would tend
to the image more complex for bot/, group,. Presumably this would be
whatever interfered with the habitual foci of both groups in a way that (to
use Wolfram' , terms ) made the usual shon description impos.sible. The re<:ipe
for visu.l complexity, then. would invol"e whatever shaking, stirring, and cook-
ing will makr for an irreducibly heterogeneous middleground. If you aren't
already using this principle when you make images, I invite you to t ry it. I
want to call this a 'Mimi middleground to distinguish it f,om the kind of
middlq;round that could be interpreted any way you likr, ,ince it com-
promises the relationship in a way that ambiguates both. This
is also the way I would like to approach neocybernetics' system/em'ironment
If the complexity of our images is of. pi,""e ,,'it n thecomplexityof our world,
this is not to say that our images accurately represent worldly complexity but
that they pani(ipate dire<:tly in it in a way that displaces questions of repr<Ynta-
tion all together. as subroutines wired into a nelworked and a \;rt,,,,1 world. as
Katherine Hayles has defined it: a world in whi ch materialit y is suffused with
information. Historicization i, paradoxical here in that we come to see that the
world has alway, been vinual and are driven to ask whyw. didn't see it before.
and thus to the narrative of a recovery from modernity, from the modernist
fetish for purity and simple formalisms that keep trying to situate figure,
of intelligibility against a ground of (haos. Bruno Latour', account i, releyant
here: we (an recognize that we h."e n,,'er been modern insofar as the various
nature/culture hybrid, we haw created h,"e overrun our (apacity to disavow
them. a proc .... (I would add) rather uncannily similar to the implosions of
diversity ba(k to the imperialist metropole. But we must also be suspicious of
stories of ,,'olution a, increasing complexity (and following thi s. of modernity
and postmodernity., increasingly complex systematizations and linkag .. at
all scales) as artifacts of an ongoing reductionism that demands .imple fim
principles and thus n,""e,sarily (reates narratives of increasing complexity.

The attempt to use neocyberneti( principles in approaching vimality (a proj -
",t merely posi/,'d here ) is compli(ated by the fact that the visual metaphor of
cb,..."mion has often been use<! in neocyberneti(5. and a. is often the (ase. i"
metaphori(ity tends to slip out of "iew. Thi. section can be taken a, pan of the
ongoing mow to displace this metaphor, a move engaged by .. >JY'
in this ,,,Iume ( I am particularly fond ofThomp,.,n'. u .. of " .. nse-making"),
hen,." the "isual metaphor to me pan of the ideological baggage that
the proj«t of neocybernetic5 must continue to llnpack---<lr to carry,
Luhmann is rspecially dear, up front, on the metaphoricity of the notion of
ob .. rv.tion: "On the I,,'el of genrral.ystems theory, ob .. rvation means noth-
ing more than handling distinctions" and "self-ob .. " .. uion is the introduction
of the .ystem/environment distinction within the . ystem.· " Accordingly {for
",amplel , single hing cellr-while they make no "observations" as such----<lo
  distinction!; in fact, they might well be fully describable as di.tinction-
handling entities. hen so (for example, in Luhmann' . sustained discussions
of observation). the metaphor often =m. to lose its implicit quotat;"n marks
and to become unmarked. What ideological or conceptual work doe. this slip·
page do!
Visual metaphors tend to bring the epistemological baggage of represen-
tationali.m. Thi. may happen in neocybernetie. at some level even though,
from it. earliest usages in autopoiesis t heory, t he "isual has also been used
pointedly "gainsr representationalism and the naive notions of realism it can
be made to underwrite. In t he '960. , MalUrana participated in stud ie, of frog
"is ion that mowd--from correlating retinal acti vity wit h external .timuli- to
"understanding the ne,,·ou. system as a dosed network of interacting neurons·
.. Iecti"el)" rrigg"",d bybut not co""/,,t.d wilh an environment. " Notice that this
paradigm shift develops structuralism's inaugural ",,,elation that language be
treated not in its referentiality to an outside world but as a system unto itself.
As befo .. , thinking in t .. ms of performat;,ity may be t he simpbt antidote to
both repre .. ntationalism and anti -.. presentatio nalism.
Visual metaphors are al,., notorious for producing a false sen .. of distance
or .. mo,·al from what is being ob""'ed and, in turn. ",eaking in a fal .. sen ..
of t he observer's obj<'<ti"ity and ..... n a transcendent perspecti,-, (that is. situat-
ing the obse rv .. as outside of the ob .. rwd or. in other words. desjflmting). The
.neakine" comes in because thi' action can be performed while being explicitly
and even elaborately denied------a, can be the ca .. with univeT>Jlizing ' tatement.
such as "all perspecti".,are non-uni,'.,,,,!. · Among the best antidotes continue
to be hi'lOricizing (a sustained exploration of the historic.lembeddedne" and
contingency of all ob .. ,,"'tion •• induding one'. own) and,m (which
ha, understood visual pridese and t he "god' , eye ,'iew" as panicular artifacts
of patriarchy).
So far,., good. But part of the impossibaity of simply t he
sentationali,m and fal .. ",n .. of distance that tend to come with notion, of
(OMPlU 257
"obser .. is that this rejection also tends to si tuate these kind, of episte-
mological mistakes a, inherent in systems to begin with. Take. for example.
the claim that n("()(ybernetics allows us to escape soli""i,m. meaning (presum-
ably) the solipsism of a .tlf that believe, that it i, a self and in its "e"ion of
the world as rhr world. The escapt -from-solipsism accoum sounds good-
much in the same ,,"ay {hat formulations of based on recognition of
otherness sound good_nd I would certainly ,,"am to affirm both principles
iM Ine",sei>·N. But again, thinking l"'rformatiYely about such 'ta{ement' and
beginning to historici"" them yidds a contrad ;ctory and complex discursive
picture. Notice that such formulae le .... rage their knowledge claim (that is,
their claim to ,how us something counterintuitive) by po,iting a world of ""/<1 -
rally <"lip,;,lic creature,. It is ju,{ along these line, that "on Foerster gently
satirized his · American friend, " of the early '960, as excited by the revdation
that "Iii ... in an E,,,"ironment ."" If, as von Foerster seems to be sugge,ting,
there is something particularly American about such a realization, laudable
in it self, it must be because imptrially and pa{riarchally privileged American
,ubjectivity tend, otherwise {o a"ume what Keats once called. in reference to
WiUiam Wordsworth, the "egoti,tical sublime." A, Clarke and Hansen point
out in {he introduction to thi' volume (and then a, Clarke goes on to daborate),
after the ""dation of an environment, at lea't two more self-reflexive ,tep'
are neces",ry to inaugurate neoC)'berne{ics. First is the ,ecognition that the
en"ironmen{ J po,i{ is posited by me (or a, Maturana and V.rela put it. "any-
thing ",id is said by an ob.erver").'" But can this really be {he ,seapt from
soli""i,m, the recognition that the world out the .. , and.lI of you people (and
",proallryou, dear reader ), are figments of my imagination! On the contrary,
if {his were all there was to it, thi' would be w lipsism itself, and more than
ju,t ,ubjtctivity ({he po>ited un would remain to be di'placed. The second
step i, in corning {o grip. with the plurality- the always-already networked
na{ure------<>f ,df an