AUTOPOIESIS, CULTURE, AND SOCIETY

Humberto Mariotti

 

The concept of autopoiesis has long surpassed the realm of biology. It has been used in areas so diverse as sociology, psychotherapy, management, anthropology, organizational culture, and many others. This circumstance transformed it in a very important and useful instrument for the investigation of reality. Years ago, Chilean scientists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela proposed the following question: to what extent human social phenomenology could be seen as a biological phenomenology? The purpose of this article is to look for an answer to this question. However, before getting to it I think that it is necessary to review some of the fundamental principles introduced by these two authors.

 

Autopoiesis

Poiesis is a Greek term that means production. Autopoiesis means autoproduction. This word appeared for the first time in the international literature in 1974, in an article published by Varela, Maturana, and Uribe, in which living beings are seen as systems that produce themselves in a ceaseless way. Thus, it can be said that an autopoietic system is at the same time the producer and the product.

In Maturana’s viewpoint, the term "autopoiesis" expresses what he called "the center of the constitutive dynamics of living systems". To live this dynamics in an autonomous way, living systems need to obtain resources from the environment in which they live. In other words, they are simultaneously autonomic and dependent systems. So, this condition is clearly a paradox. This self-contradictory condition cannot be adequately understood by linear thinking, according to which everything must be reduced to the binary model yes/no, or/or. When dealing with living beings, things, and events, linear thinking begins by dividing them. The next step is the analysis of the separate parts. No attempts are made to look for the dynamic relationships that exists between them.

This autonomy-dependency paradox, which is a characteristic feature of living beings, is better understood when one uses a way of thinking that encompasses systems thinking (which examines the dynamic relationships between the parts) and linear thinking. This model has been proposed by French author Edgar Morin, who called it "complex thinking".

Maturana and Varela proposed an instructive metaphor that is worthwhile to recall here. In their viewpoint, living systems are self-producing machines. No other kind of machine is able to do this: their production always consists in something that is different from themselves. Since autopoietic systems are simultaneously producers and products, it could also be said that they are circular systems, that is, they work in terms of productive circularity. Maturana maintains that as long as we are not able to understand the systemic character of living cells, we will not be able to adequately understand living organisms. I reaffirm that this understanding can only be adequately provided by complex thinking. However, we live in a culture that is deeply formatted by linear thinking. This fact resulted in important consequences, some of which are very grave, as we will see later in this text.

 

Structure, organization, and structural determinism

As stated by Maturana and Varela, living beings are structure-determined systems. What happens to us in a given moment depends on our structure in this moment. These authors call this concept structural determinism. The structure of a given system is the way by which their components interconnect with no changes in their organization. Let us see an example related to a non-living system — a table. It can have any of its parts modified, but keeps being a table as long as these parts are left articulated. However, if we disconnect and separate them, the system can no longer be recognized as a table, because its organization is lost. Thus, we could say that the system is extinguished. In the same way, the structure of a living system changes all the time, which demonstrates that it is continuously adapting itself to the equally continuous environmental changes. Nevertheless, the loss of the organization would result in the death of the system.

Thus, organization determines the identity of a system, whereas structure determines how its parts are physically articulated. Organization identifies a system and corresponds to its general configuration. Structure shows the way parts interconnect. The moment in which a system loses its organization corresponds to the limit of its tolerance to structural changes.

The fact that living systems are submitted to structural determinism does not mean that they are foreseeable. In other words, they are determined but this does not mean that they are predetermined. As a matter of fact, since their structure changes all the time — and in congruence with the aleatory modifications of the environment —, it is not adequate to speak about predetermination. We should rather speak about circularity. In order to avoid any doubts about this issue, we would better bear in mind this detail: what happens to a system in a given moment depends on its structure in this very moment.

The world in which we live is the world that we build out of our perceptions, and it is our structure that enables us to have these perceptions. So, our world is the world that we have knowledge of. If the reality that we perceive depends on our structure — which is individual —, there are as many realities as perceiving people. This explains why the so-called purely objective knowledge is impossible: the observer is not apart from the phenomena he or she observes. Since we are determined by the way the parts of which we are made interconnet and work together (that is, by our structure), the environment can only trigger in our organisms the alterations that are determined in the structure of these organisms. A cat can only perceive the world and interact with it by means of its feline structure, not with a configuration that is does not have, as for instance the human structure. By the same token, we humans cannot see the world the same way as a cat does.

Thus, we do not have adequate arguments to affirm the reality of this objectivity which we use to be so proud of. In Maturana’s viewpoint, when someone says that he or she is objective, it means that he or she has access to a privileged worldview, and that this privilege in some way enables he or she to exercise an authority that takes for granted the obedience of everybody else who is not objective. This is one of the basis of the so-called logical reasoning.

Our conditioning leads us to see the world as an object, thus we think of ourselves as separate from it. And we go even further: through the ego, we see ourselves as observers separate from the rest of our own psyche. In order to operate such an objective proposal, it is necessary to establish a boundary between the ego and the world, the same way we did between the ego and the rest of our totality. So, since we are divided the same will happen with our knowledge, which will also result divided and limited.

This is the final result of our alleged objectivity: a fragmented and restricted worldview. It is from this position that we think of ourselves as authorized to judge everybody who does not agree with us, and condemn them as "non-objective" and "intuitive" people. In other words, departing from a fragmented and limited viewpoint, we think that is possible to arrive to the truth and show it to our peers — a truth that we imagine that is the same for everybody.

 

Structural coupling

According to Maturana and Varela, living systems and the environment change in a congruent way. In their comparison, the foot is always adjusting to the shoe and vice versa. This is a good manner to say that the environment triggers changes in the structure of systems, and systems answer by triggering changes in the environment and so on, in a circular way. When a system influences another, the influenced one answers by influencing back, that is, it develops a compensatory behavior. The first organism then proceeds to act again over the second one, which replies once more — and so on, as long as the two systems keep going in this coupling condition.

We already know that living systems are determined by their structure. Nevertheless, it is important to keep in mind that when a system is in structural coupling mode with another one, at a given moment of this relationship the conduct of one of them is a constant source of stimuli for compensatory answers from the other. These are, therefore, transactional and recurrent events. When a system influences another, the influenced one sustains a structural change — a deformation. On replying, the influenced system gives to the influencer an interpretation of how this influence was perceived. A dialogue is therefore established. In other words, a consensual context is started, through which structurally coupled organisms interact. This interaction is a linguistic domain.

To put it in another way, in this transactional ambit the conduct of each organism corresponds to a description of the behavior of its partner. Each one "tells" to the other how its "message" has been perceived. This explains why there is no competition between natural systems. What exists is cooperation. However, when culture meets nature — as happens with human beings — things change.

I reaffirm that there is no competition (in the predatory sense of the term) between non-human living beings. When men refer to some animals as predators, they are anthropomorphizing them, that is, projecting on them a condition that is peculiar to humans. Since they do not compete between themselves, non-human living systems do not "dictate" each other norms of conduct. If natural conditions keep unchanged, there are no authoritarian commandments nor unconditional obediency between them. Living beings are autonomous systems. Its conduct is determined according to their own structures, that is, according to the way they interpret influences that come from the environment. They are not subdued systems, that is, they are not unconditionally obedient to outside determinations.

In the case of human societies, in which the prevailing conditions are not only those provided by nature, this is exactly what marketing and other means of mass conditioning try (and in many cases succeed) to do with entire populations. Thus, it is possible to reach to mass-production of subdued people, provided conditioning stimuli are widespread and constant. This is what psychoanalyst Félix Guattari calls subjectivities production. With this concept, he introduces the idea of an industrial, mass-produced, capitalism-formatted subjectivity. This is the result of the operation of huge conditioning systems, by means of which capital (today in its neoliberal triumphant phase) builds and maintains its immense market of power. In other words, all these efforts are directed to the consolidation and continuing operation of violence against the most basic of the characteristics of living systems — autopoiesis.

The notion that living systems are structurally determined is of utmost importance for many areas of human activity. In psychotherapy, for instance, transference and countertransference can be understood as manifestations of this structural coupling, in which changes sustained by the client are determined only by his or her structure. They cannot, therefore, be considered as caused or produced in any way by the therapist. As a consequence, it is very important to keep in mind that the consensual domain that results from structural coupling of autopoietic systems is indeed a linguistic context — but not in the mere sense of transmission of information.

 

Sociocultural extension

Maturana and Varela pointed out that Darwin’s evolutive theory transcended the simple diversity of living beings and their origin and extended to many areas, as for example the culture. As we know, this theoretical proposal emphasizes the dimensions of species, aptitude and natural selection. These notions are nowadays the basis for social darwinism, which is the utilization of Darwin’s ideas to justify predatory competition between men. In this sense, it is a fundamentalist interpretation.

In the same way, the idea of transcendence has been used to justify social exclusion and allied phenomena, as political and economic exploitation. On account of this, individuals would have a very small meaning and value as compared to species. As a consequence, people are supposed to give everything (which includes their lives) for the benefit of perpetuation of species — but the opposite is by no means always true.

When speaking about this issue, Maturana and Varela recall the following arguments, which have been largely applied to our societies:

a) the evolution is the evolution of human species;

b) according to the law of natural selection, the more fit will survive;

c) competition leads to evolution, and this applies to the human beings too;

d) those who did not survive were not able to contribute to the history of human species.

Summing up, individuals should let natural phenomena evolve and stay in a kind of passive attitude — everything for species sake. 

However, the same authors state that these arguments should not prevail when one needs to justify the subordination of the individual to the species, because biologic phenomenology occurs in the individual, not in species. In other words, these arguments should not prevail because biologic phenomenology belongs to the part, not to the whole. Since the way of being of a given individual is determined by its structure — which is autopoietic —, there should not exist discardable individuals, either in relation to species, society, mankind, and any other instances, important or transcendent as they may be.

 

Ordinations, societies and individuals

In nature — as stated by Maturana and Varela —, there is a tendency to the constitution of increasingly complex autopoietic systems. This occurs through the coupling of simpler autopoietic unities to build up more complex organizations, in which the hierarchy principle is the rule: a system is inside another one, that is superior to it; this one is, by its turn, inside another one, that is superior to it; and so on. This happens in multicellular organisms and, according to Maturana and Varela, maybe in the cell itself.

The main question is to know whether this circumstance could be applicable to human societies. If so, they could be seen as first-order autopoietic systems. In this line of reasoning, people’s autopoiesis would be subordinated to the autopoiesis of the societies in which they live. Thus, it could be ethically justifiable the sacrifice of individuals for the sake of societies. In these circumstances — as Maturana and Varela say —, it would very much difficult for human beings to act on the autopoietic dynamics of the societies to which they belong. I certainly agree with this argument, and also think that it is possible to reinforce it with some more considerations. In order to be able to develop them, I will stay in the domain of biology.

We know that an autopoietic system produces itself utilizing resources from the environment. In order to be able to go on with this process, a human organism, for instance, keeps discarding its worn-out cells. These dead parts are continuously replaced for new ones, and so the process continues while the organism keeps alive, that is, autopoietic. However, as far as it is alive, no autopoietic unity discards any of their living components. There are no prescindible parts in natural systems.

As a result — and always keeping the focus on the biologic context —, a society could only be considered autopoietic while satisfying the autopoiesis of all the individuals that constitute it. Thus, a society that discards young and productive individuals (by means of strategies as production of subjectivities, wars, genocide, social exclusion and other forms of violence) is a self-mutilating and therefore pathologic system.

If men were only natural beings, their autopoiesis would obviously be operated only in the natural way. The fact that men are also cultural beings lead them to operate their autopoiesis in a different manner — different and pathologic, because it is a self-aggressive one. Culture conditions individuals, which by their turn reciprocate, and so on, in a circularity that cannot be understood in terms of linear thinking. Why is this so? We know that there are no single-caused phenomena in nature — and this case is no exception. Even so, one can affirm that the main cause of this dysfunction is the prevailing mental model of our culture — linear thinking. We are deeply conditioned by this model, which stimulates immediatism and assign a high value to war and competition. This is the main reason by which our societies are pathologic living systems.

It is very important to repeat that what makes our societies behave like this is not the cultural dimension in itself, but the kind of culture under which we live, that emphasizes the belief that predatory competition is a good, healthy and ethically justifiable way of life. Its most visible practical manifestation is competitivity — the compulsion to not only winning, but also eliminating our opponents, the compulsion of leading to the last consequences aggressivity, implacability and the need to exclude.

All of us are to some extent influenced by the unidimensionality of linear thinking, which leads us to think that the most pleasant side of a victory is to defeat someone. This the so-called zero sum game: an interaction in which for someone’s victory to be satisfactory the defeat of the opponent is an indispensable condition. In a climate like this, people, things, and events cannot be complementary: something must necessarily be removed and discarded so that something else could be put in its place. This situation may even be inevitable in some specific contexts, but it certainly does not have the wideness that we imagine.

In any case, the idea of the other as an invariable adversary, as an enemy to exterminate, is one of the fundamental features of the competitivity of our culture. Through it — and specially in the domain of business and corporations —, we live our daily paranoia. It is a worldview that excludes the possibility that the other could be momentarily defeated by one’s competence, but preserved in order to be capable, in the future, to learn how to win, that is, to learn how to be competent. The ideal of competitivity, however, is to win in such a way that the winner could be always the first and the only one — as if we could exist without our human fellows, and, even worse, as if anybody could be the first and the only one without being also the last one.

Let us say the same thing in another way. Some paragraphs ago, I wrote that in nature there is no competitivity. What exists is competence. As noted by Maturana, when two animals meet before the same piece of food and only one eats, this happens because in that specific moment one of them was the most competent to do so. But this does not mean that the animal that was unable to eat is doomed to be, from that moment on, forever forbidden to eat until death arrives. This does not happen in nature.

However, when circumstances involve the competitivity of human culture, the individual who succeeds to eat do not satisfy himself with this fact: he or her needs to make sure that the one who was not able to eat must cease forever to be a threat. In other words, competitive men usually do not feel sure of their competence, so they have the need to get rid of whoever could jeopardise them. In other words, when men cannot trust in themselves as living beings, their peers must be eliminated as soon as possible. But even so — let us insist on this point —, this cannot be ascribed to the cultural dimension in itself: it plays such a role in a culture like ours, which do not know how to deal with aleatority and ceaseless change. And these conditions, as we know, constitute the very essence of life. In other words, we do not know how to deal with autopoiesis — that is why we feel ourselves in need to aggress it and to deny its reality.

It is obvious that these considerations do not invalidate the concept of autopoiesis. On the contrary, it stands even more validated by the demonstration of its efficacy in once more diagnosing the self-aggressive condition of we humans — a condition that we have extended to our societies. Let us recall now the question asked by Maturana and Varela: to what extent human social phenomenology may be seen as a biological phenomenology? The above reflections have already answered it: social phenomenology can surely be seen as a biological phenomenlogy — but it is a pathologic condition.

 

Values and depreciations

Let us add some more reflections. Martin Heidegger, among others, states that individuals have the tendency to alienate themselves to the things of the world. This makes them forget the Being. This alienation leads us to value things in an excessive way and then to depreciate ourselves and, by extension, do deny the humanity of our peers. In other words, people see each other as trading goods. This is a well-known social feature.

In this same direction, our need for transcendence is also depreciated. Let us consider the quest for spiritual values that could guide and justify human existence. In societies as ours, in which people are seen as mere objects, such values tend to be excessively idealized, and this further increases the distance between them and ordinary people. As a result, we will do everything we can to preserve such values, which includes an increased contempt for the lack of transcendentality of our peers, and they will answer in the same way. Psychologist Emílio Romero has an illustrative phrase about this issue: "It is not easy to love simple, limited, contradictory, oscillating, flesh and bone mortals like ourselves. It is easier do admire distant idols, maybe protectors in their unattainable majesty".

As history shows, this attitude has produced regrettable results. Everybody knows about societies in which the marked inclination toward spirituality has produced and still produces legions of socially excluded. On the other hand, we know that the excessive tendency toward materiality has produced and still produces the same legions of indigents. It seems that the excess of non-linearity of thought is as noxious to autopoiesis (that is, for life) as the excess of linearity (that is, of rationality).

Furthermore, a new phenomena has appeared and consolidates itself at a fast rate. I am referring to over-idealization of money. As we know, the capital has been since a long time the basic value of our culture. For the past several years, however, it has been very easy to idealize it even more. This is due to the ascent of the so-called "volatile money", represented by the intangible ciphers that circulate electronically through the global markets. This enhanced "transcendentalization" of money has been adding, now in a vertiginous way, more fuel to the bonfire in which the socially excluded are mercilessly burned out. This discardability of people — which is the basic manifestation of the pathology of our culture — is quickly increasing as years go on. Thus, a truly autopoietic society cannot coexist with the predatory competition which is the outstanding mark of our culture.

Summing up, these reflections lead to the following conclusions:

a) As proposed by Maturana and Varela, autopoiesis is indeed a concept that resolve and clearly defines the problem of biologic phenomenology.

b) According to this viewpoint, social phenomenology can be seen as a biological phenomenology, because society is composed of living beings. As a consequence, the idea of autopoiesis, when applied as an instrument of social analysis, confirms the conclusion already established by other means of investigation — that our societies are self-mutilating, pathologic systems.

c) A sizeable part of this pathology may be explained by the fact that the mind of our culture is formatted by linear thinking, which states that causes stand immediately before effects or are very close to them, and maintains that these relationships always occur in the same context of space and time.

d) This mental model is obviously necessary for the understanding and the practice of the mechanical circumstances of life (material production, ingestion, processing, excretion, and exchange of tangible goods), but it is not sufficient to understand and to deal with the events of life that involve feelings and emotions.

e) As a result, the linear mental model is only adequate as a basis for the conventional market economy, that underestimates or simply discards the non-mechanical dimensions of human existence. As a consequence, this economy keeps creating scenarios in which the integral human being (that is, the complex human being) is always divided, used and finally excluded.

f) Therefore, we are talking about the consequences of an oversimplification of human condition, which pretends that it is possible to resolve systemic problems by means of a linear and unidimensional mental model.

g) As a result, increasingly morbid societies have been built, which insist in disrespecting the autopoiesis of their components. We live in communities that describe themselves as always looking for a good quality of life. However, when observed with a more rigorous look, what can be seen is that this quality is accessible only to a minority. Furthermore, the costs of this quality are dangerously (and increasingly) high, because it keeps generating a dreadful series of by-products — which begin with social exclusion and end in death.


References

 

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BOHM, David. On dialogue. London: Routledge, 1998.

GUATTARI, Félix. Chaosmose; un nouvel paradigme esthétique. Paris: College International d’Études Transdisciplinaires, 1991.

GUATTARI, Félix, ROLNIK, Suely. Cartografias do desejo. Petrópolis: Vozes, 1996.

HEIDEGGER, Martin. Being and time. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.

MATURANA, Humberto. El sentido de lo humano. Santiago: Dolmen Ediciones, 1993.

MATURANA, Humberto. Emoções e linguagem na educação e na política. Belo Horizonte: Editora UFMG, 1998.

MATURANA, Humberto, VARELA, Francisco J. Autopoiesis and cognition; the organization of the living. Boston: Reidel, 1980.

MORIN, Edgar. Introduction à la pensée complexe. Paris: EST Éditeurs, 1990.

MORIN, Edgar. La complexité humaine. Paris: Flammarion, 1994.

ROMERO, Emílio. O inquilino do imaginário; formas de alienação e psicopatologia. São Paulo: Lemos, 1997.

RUIZ, Alfredo. Humberto Maturana e a psicoterapia. Thot (São Paulo) 70: 61-69, 1999.

VARELA, Francisco J. Sobre a competência ética. Lisboa: edições 70, s.d.

VARELA, Francisco J., THOMPSON, Evan, ROSCH, Eleanor. The embodied mind; cognitive science and human experience. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 1997.

VARELA, Francisco, MATURANA, Humberto, URIBE, R. Autopoiesis: the organization of living systems, its characterization and a model. Biosystems 5:187-196, 1974.


Humberto Mariotti is a pychiatrist and psychotherapist. He is also the coordinator of the Studies Group of Complexity and Systems Thinking of the Palas Athena Association, in São Paulo, Brazil.


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