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I, autopoiesis

by on March 2, 2013

At first, I was not convinced that the autopoietic / allopoietic distinction that Bryant picks up from systems theory was entirely legitimate. Can these two really be clearly distinguished? On page 163, Bryant remarks that “Autopoietic machines are machines or objects that produce their own elements and ‘strive’ to maintain their organization across time…By contrast, allopoietic machines are machines produced by something else.” I was immediately reminded here of meme theory, in which social phenomena (and perhaps all objects, I’m not really that up on meme theory) are treated as self-preserving entities just as subject to the rules of evolution as organic organisms. Languages, for example, strive to maintain their own ideal circumstances as beings at the expense of their users. So in this light, I was unsatisfied with Bryant’s use of autopoiesis / allopoiesis. But a little further down on the very same page, he attributes something like Sartre’s being-for-itself to autopoietic machines: “Here a major difference between autopoietic machines and allopoietic machines would be that allopoietic machines can only undergo actualization through information, whereas autopoietic machines can both be actualized in a particular way through information and can actualize themselves in particular ways through ongoing operations internal to their being.” I think this supplies a more firm distinction – autopoietic objects / machines are self-reflexively able to actualize themselves, whereas allopoietics can only be actualized. This, it would seem, carries large ethical consequences for autopoietic machines, which Bryant doesn’t really get into. What does it mean for humans to be autopoietic? What is our responsibility given the capability of actualizing ourselves? Is there any firm foundation or basis of knowledge upon which we can steer our own being? Where do we go from here?

Last week I posted about Bryant’s critique of Lacan / Zizek: “Basically, Bryant says that they hypostatize the human linguistic structure and vastly over-apply it to the rest of the Universe.” Bryant doesn’t seem to accept that Zizek’s ‘gap’ theory (that objects are an illusion springing from the void between the object and the void of its place) (125) because without warrant it vastly over-applies a theory of language onto the whole universe. This seemed like a solid counter-argument to me, but Bryant’s later treatment of psychoanalysis in relation to onticology forced me to reconsider. He uses several notions from Lacanian psychoanalysis (such as the gap between cause and effect on page 178, and the fundamental fantasy on page 189) to illustrate his theory of the withdrawal and autonomy of objects, or rather to show the same principle at work in the field of the psyche, which is for Lacan inevitably the domain of language. So here we have Bryant comparing his own theories to the structure of language, which was exactly his own criticism against Zizek. If language can be compared to the ontological map of reality in one way, why not the other?

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