Autopoiesis (“self-creation”) is a term that has long been an important part of the vocabularies of systems theory (biological and social) and cybernetics, but it has more recently become an important addition to various other fields in the social sciences and humanities. Taken up primarily as a concept accounting for the self-generating and self-reproducing nature of complex social systems and their forms of cognition and communication, autopoiesis has provided new and generative ways of thinking about epistemology, social organization, and ecological formations. In this brief introduction, I will provide a general description of autopoiesis and explore how Black Studies theorist Sylvia Wynter’s use of the concept might open up new directions for political theological engagements with the Christian west’s systems of religion, colonialism, and social inequality.
Autopoiesis was first introduced and elaborated by Chilean evolutionary and systems biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela in Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (Maturana and Varela, 1972/1980). The term designated for them a new knowledge of “the organization of living systems” that is premised on the idea that all living entities are unities organized around specific dynamic relations and not any essence or set of component parts. Generally speaking, an autopoietic system is one that generates and reproduces itself through itself. In contrast to an allopoietic system that generates a product other than itself (a mechanical assembly line, for example), an autopoietic system’s sole “product” is the continuation of its own relational unity.
At the heart of autopoietic production is a distinction from an environment, which is anything that is not the system. This distinction can be confusing because the autopoietic system is not just the system, but the unity of its distinction between itself and its environment. Just as there is no life without death, there is no system without an environment against which it defines itself.
This means that for the autopoietic system, the environment is always a self-referential aspect of the system itself. In other words, the outside is always an operation of the inside. Each system’s specific environment is a “virtual” product of the system’s own self-referentiality and encountered only as an operation of the system whose sole aim is to maintain and reproduce itself. This does not mean that the system can somehow control its environment or that the environment for each system does not actually exist for other entities. Rather, the point is that all experience of an environment is necessarily tied to a particular cognitive operation of self-referential sense-perception and knowing.
Because the operations of autopoietic systems always takes place against an uncontrollable environment, they must constantly compensate for “environmental perturbations” that trigger changes in the system’s dynamic state. System adaptation is made possible through the distinction between what Maturana and Varela call the system’s “organization,” which “denotes those relations that must exist among the components of a system for it to be a member of a specific class,” and its “structure,” which “denotes the components and relations that actually constitute a particular unity and make its organization real” (Maturana and Varela, 1992, 47). Autopoietic systems are closed at the level of their organization but open at the level of structure. Changing the structure of the system is a triggered response that transforms the physical or noetic state of the system but does not change its basic relational organization.
While Maturana’s and Varela’s early explorations of autopoiesis were aimed primarily at understanding the biological organization of cells, their project also had significant implications for theories of epistemology and social organization. One of the primary epistemological strengths of the theory of autopoiesis is an avoidance of representationalist schemas of cognition premised either on a recovery of a pregiven outer world or the projection of a pregiven inner world. Both of these perspectives assume that there exists a world independent of the observer that is then represented through the system’s cognition.
What makes the concept of autopoiesis so valuable for Maturana and Varela (and as we will see, Sylvia Wynter) is that it enables a different kind of approach to cognition that bypasses the “recovery” vs. “projection” conundrum altogether as it locates cognition as a phenomenon of embodied action. In autopoiesis, there is no separation between what we do and the particular way in which the world appears to us. In their words, “every act of knowing brings forth a world. … All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing” (Maturana and Varela, 1992, 26).
Sylvia Wynter and Autopoiesis
Over the last four decades, Sylvia Wynter has applied Maturana’s and Varela’s theory of autopoiesis to her prolifically interdisciplinary and epoch-spanning project of thinking a new account of human being beyond “Man,” the Christian west’s “overdetermined” figure of a singular and universal form of human life that organizes the modern epistemological, political, and economic global order. Wynter’s use of autopoiesis is particularly relevant for political theology as it shows how European colonialism, racism, and secularism are self-inscribing systems of human differentiation whose operations depend heavily on religious and theological distinctions.
Man is framed within Wynter’s broader account of “genres of being human,” which describes the multiple forms of life grounded in different languages, stories, and religio-cultural forms that span across the human species. As “hybrid” beings of “bios/logos,” human beings are autopoietic entities both in terms of their biological processes and their own narrative productions of truth and knowledge that they experience as objective. For Wynter, religion has played a particularly important function for genres of being human. I refer to her basic concept of religion as “autoreligion,” which emphasizes religion’s autopoietic function as a human mechanism of world-making “already presupposed” with the emergence of language (Wynter and McKittrick, 2015, 26). Wynter understands (auto)religion primarily as a mode of self-referential storytelling that produces narrative codes of “extra-human” order and determination, or the idea that a transcendent force outside of human being’s own self-produced narratives of existence (whether divine or natural) is determinative of the ways in which human life is ordered and lived (Wynter, 2003, 271-273)
The production and repetition of autoreligious codes of distinction legitimates and grounds each genre of being human’s sense of self and the boundaries that separate the social inside from the outside, or system from environment. These boundaries are policed and enforced around what Wynter calls codes of symbolic life (“the name of what is good”) and death (“the name of what is evil”), which reflect a transcendentally given order of proper existence that is made real through concrete practices of subordinating those that do not align with the system’s criterion of inclusion (Wynter and Scott, 2000, 179ff).
Because autoreligion compels genres of being human to experience their own social reality as given from beyond the community itself, they are unable to perceive that the stories told about human origins, cosmological situatedness, and ontological differentiation are products of their own self-inscription and not in fact “natural” or “universal” to the whole of the human species. In this sense, “being human” describes not an essence or reduced figure of evolutionary biology, but an open-ended multiplicity of different stories and cultural practices.
It is from this insight that Wynter levels her critique of Man and its subjective codes of order that hinge around the system distinction between European Man as fully-human and all others as occupying various levels of sub-humanity. In Man’s genealogy, the life/death code that posits the system distinction between full and subordinated human being begins with the Medieval European political-theological scapegoating of Jews and Muslims (and other socio-political identities on a sliding scale of proper being) internal to Europe as the contaminating threat to the “true Christian subject” of the Church. Beginning in the late 15th century, the distinction between the True Christian and its untrue others is transported to the New World and structurally adjusted with the theo-political cum secularized colonial distinction between “irrational” Natives and Africans and “rational” European citizens enforced via the Spanish state’s encomienda system of enslavement. Finally, the code undergoes another structural transformation in the 19th century Darwinian “biocentric” marking of Africans as evolutionarily “dysselected” against white Europeans who are “selected” to thrive politically and economically. In each case, whether articulated in explicitly religious or secular terms, the former functions as the transcendent “name of what is evil” to the latter’s “name of what is good,” maintaining and reproducing Man’s general organization around the fully-human/sub-human distinction (Wynter, 2003).
What Wynter’s genealogy of Man provides political theology is a direct link between the west’s continuing organization around a metaphysics of a singularly authentic human subject and a series of autoreligious structural adjustments that are grounded in a political theological mode of othering. It is this mode of othering that has enabled Man to sustain and reproduce its various divisions (racial, economic, gendered, sexual, etc.) between those who find themselves on the symbolic side of life and those who find themselves on the side of death. For Wynter, understanding this as an autopoietic operation enables the possibility of a rupture within Man’s system of subordination as it exposes what is posited and often experienced as natural or objective simply as the self-referential product of a particular system.
As Wynter argues, it is Frantz Fanon who first turns this insight towards a decolonial thought in his realization that the “self-evident consciousness” of the Euro-colonial world is a very particular form of socially conditioned consciousness premised on an anti-blackness that permeates all experience within its boundaries (Wynter, 2001). In Black Skin, White Masks, when Fanon finds himself “an object among other objects” under the white gaze, he realizes that his own sense of self as a colonized black man subordinated to a white order is in fact the self-creation of the colonizer. It is this experience that leads Fanon to take the “leap” of self-invention outside the anti-black terms of order and set out anew in conscious self-creation.
Following Fanon’s lead, Wynter’s “autopoetic turn” (Wynter, 2015), which orients the “poiesis” of autopoiesis towards the more conscious creativity of “poetics,” is premised on thinking a new human future beyond the violent overdetermination of Man. In Wynter’s new vision, the quest for human flourishing begins with the acknowledgement of the globally shared enactment of human being through the infinite capacity of self-invention. It is only when the collective “we” of an open and differentiated global humanity can, from the liberated perspective of each of our own particular genres of being human, together know ourselves as the self-creating beings we are that we might finally “experience ourselves, not only as we do now, as this or that genre of the human, but also as human” (Wynter and Scott, 2000, 197).
Selected Works of Maturana and Varela and Wynter:
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1980)
This book introduces the concept of autopoiesis as a new way to think about biological systems as self-generating unities whose operations are entirely self-referential.
___________. The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding (Shambhala, 1992)
A highly accessible “textbook” on the autopoietic nature of biological systems and cognition, this book systematically explores the autopoietic origins of life and cognition. This is probably the best place to start to understand Maturana’s and Varela’s basic epistemological approach and how autopoiesis provides a new way of thinking about the organization of living and social systems.
Sylvia Wynter. “The Ceremony Must be Found: After Humanism” Boundary 2 Vol. 12/13, Vol. 12, no. 3 – Vol. 13, no. 1 (1984)
___________. “The Ceremony Found: Towards the Autopoetic Turn/Overturn, its Autonomy of Human Agency and Extraterritoriality of (Self-)Cognition” in Ambroise and Broeck, Eds. Black Knowledges/Black Struggles: Essays in Critical Epistemologies (Liverpool University Press, 2015)
These two essays can be read as bookends to Wynter’s later writings on humanism and “Man” (1984-2015), both focusing on the relationships between self-generating human forms of life, storytelling, and epistemological “ruptures.” “The Ceremony Must be Found” is Wynter’s first engagement with Maturana and Varela and the theory of autopoiesis, and it also contains Wynter’s most direct theorization of religion as an autopoietic operation key to the evolutionary emergence of human societies. “The Ceremony Found” is Wynter’s last major essay and argues that the knowledge of the autopoietic nature of human cognition and social invention provides an opportunity to construct a “new science” grounded in the hybrid reality of human beings as bios/logos.
___________. “Towards the Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, Identity, the Puzzle of Conscious Experience, and What it is like to be ‘Black’” in National Identities and Socio- political Changes in Latin America, Ed. Mercedes F. Durán-Cogan and Antonio Gómez-Moriana. (Routledge, 2001)
This essay is one of Wynter’s most direct engagements with Frantz Fanon and outlines the “sociogenic principle” that states that human beings’ particular social production is just as formative to their experience of reality as is biology.
__________. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being / Power / Truth / Freedom: Towards the Human, after Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument.” cr: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003)
This essay is a good place to start for Wynter’s genealogy of Man and the role that Spanish colonialism in the Americas played in the emergence of modern conceptions of race.
Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick. “Unparalleled Catastrophe for our Species?” in McKittrick, Kathrine, Ed. Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. (Duke University Press, 2015)
This interview with Katherine McKittrick provides an excellent overview of Wynter’s broad interests and concerns, with direct references to the theory of autopoiesis.
Sylvia Wynter and David Scott. “The Re-Enchantment of Humanism” Small Axe 8 (September 2000)
This interview with David Scott is a great starting point for those interested in Wynter’s life and thought. It provides overviews of her major interests and concerns and also includes substantial biographical information on Wynter’s fascinating life and career.