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A Conversation with Graham Harman and Monika Kaup on ‘New Ecological Realisms’ (Part 3)

Graham Harman and Monika Kaup

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Graham Harman: In Chapter Two your focus shifts toward the Chilean immunologists and autopoiesis theorists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela. I found myself wondering if you also had Niklas Luhmann on your mind a bit, given his substantial shared interest with the two Chileans. But of even greater interest to me was that Maturana and Varela appear in your book directly after your chapter on Latour, and it seems to me that in an important respect they are polar opposites. Latour is all about everything linking together almost promiscuously in networks, while autopoiesis theory is all about closure and the difficulty of a cell or a society being changed by what surrounds it. Indeed, I’ve never heard Latour say a kind word about Luhmann, and there’s an old anecdote in circulation about Luhmann scolding the young Latour in public. Anyway, what is the nature of your interest in Maturana and Varela, and do you think they are as different from Latour as I have suggested, or do you see more compatibility?

Monika Kaup: Maturana and Varela don’t claim that autopoietic systems are closed; they claim that they are organizationally closed, a vital qualification that also induces them to add, in every instance they discuss organizational closure, a second claim: autopoietic systems are systems that are both closed (organizationally) and open (structurally).

In other words, autopoietic systems are not monads hermetically sealed from the environment. The boundary that surrounds them and that defines them as autonomous units—a boundary of their own making, such as a cell making its own membrane—is porous. Cells—like all autopoietic systems among which they rank as the simplest—absorb nutrients and energy from the outside and expel waste. Cut off these ongoing interactions with the environment, afforded by what Maturana and Varela refer to as the autopoietic unit’s structural openness, and the organism dies. Another way of making the same point is in the language of thermodynamics. Autopoietic systems belong to the larger family of open or dissipative structures operating far from equilibrium. In classical thermodynamics (closed systems) dissipation is associated with waste: entropy. The discoverer of self-organization, the physicist Ilya Prigogine, showed that paradoxically, in open systems, which receive their energy from the outside, dissipation becomes the source of order spontaneously emerging out of disorder. At critical points of instability, due to positive feedback loops, the system jumps to a new form of organization. This is the process of self (“auto”)-making (“poiesis”) that forms the basic element of Maturana and Varela’s theory. The same process also brought about the transition from nonliving to living matter at the dawn of evolution.

Maturana and Varela’s use of the term closure has thus given rise to much misunderstanding along the lines of your objection. Rather than closure, their meaning is better captured by the term “organizational stability.” For Maturana and Varela, autopoiesis is the characteristic of life. All living organisms (non-humans and humans, from bacteria to the visible life forms of the macrocosmos) are defined as self-organizing in the sense that they are systems that come into being spontaneously, as a result of dynamic interactions of constituent parts that self-assemble into a higher and more complex unit, defining its own organization and making its own boundary. Put another way, autopoietic systems are emergent phenomena. Further, in addition to being self-organizing (like hurricanes or vortices in a draining sink, which are not alive), autopoietic systems are also self-maintaining, which means that they can achieve homeostasis and maintain stability in the face of (a certain bandwidth of) external disturbances (temperature variations, etc.).

Autopoietic systems are thus paradoxical, at once autonomous and dependent, at once determined and free. They are organizationally non-determined (because their operation is governed by internal rules and cannot be directed by outside forces) and at the same time existentially dependent on reciprocal interactions with the environment that Maturana and Varela call structural coupling. There is no organism without the environment. In the language of OOO, autopoietic units do not qualify as autonomous objects because they physically do not exist outside of their relations (“structural couplings” in Maturana and Varela’s parlance). As Varela puts it in the afterword to The Tree of Knowledge, organism and environment are “two sides of the same coin.” Maturana and Varela’s emphasis on “circularity,” what they describe as the reciprocal co-constitution of organism and environment, mind and world, in the act of knowing (“mind and world arise together in enaction”) also shows affinities with Latour’s actor-network theory. In addition to nonlinearity (Latour’s actants, like Maturana and Varela’s autopoietic systems, are both subjects and objects), parallels extend to a shared emphasis on “doing,” in particular on world-making (poiesis for Maturana and Varela, compositionism for Latour).

Autopoietic theory and its successor, enactivism, straddle the realms of biology, neuroscience, and the humanities, thus offering important support for contextual realisms from the science side of the two cultures, often assumed to be the domain of reductive materialism. For its part, enactivism, developed by Varela, Evan Thompson and Eleanor Rosch, concentrates on cognition (knowledge), the third party in the triumvirate of living beings encompassing the autopoietic system, the environment, and cognition. For Maturana and Varela, cognition refers to the cognitive sensorium through which the living system interacts with the environment, and it is the centerpiece of their revolutionary theory of mind: cognition is embodied action. The core insight of the so-called Santiago theory, as Maturana and Varela’s work is sometimes referred to, is that “all knowing is doing.” Knowledge neither mirrors a pre-existing external reality nor does it construct reality through alien filters. Instead, cognition is a mode through which organisms bring forth—or enact—a world. This process takes place through the history of structural coupling with the environment and with other organisms in the course of which these also bring forth themselves. This point is best made by quoting a key passage from Varela et al.’s The Embodied Mind:

“We propose as a name the term enactive to emphasize the growing conviction that cognition is not the representation of a pregiven world by a pregiven mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind on the basis of a history of the variety of actions that a being in the world performs. The enactive approach takes seriously, then, the philosophical critique of the idea that the mind is a mirror of nature but goes further by addressing this issue from within the heartland of science.”

In other words, by suggesting that knowledge is primarily about worlds, and world-making, enactivism (and by extension, autopoiesis) pry knowledge loose from the vise of epistemology. Knowledge, Maturana and Varela contend, must be appreciated through the lens of ontology. Like Markus Gabriel’s ontology of fields of sense, autopoiesis and enactivism offers an ontology of knowledge.  The difference is that their theory describes a historical process related to the development of living systems, as just described, whereas Gabriel does not.

I pair Maturana and Varela with José Saramago’s post-apocalyptic novel Blindness because of a congruence in their respective approach to knowledge as embodied action that is uncanny. In Blindness, a pandemic of a strange white blindness brings about the apocalyptic collapse of modern civilization. Deprived of vision, and reduced to four of the cardinal five senses, the newly white-blind have to remake their entire lifeworld from scratch. Saramago’s novel shows that blind perception is immersed in its embodiment. As the newly white-blind tap-tap their way around in space, disoriented about the proximity of things that hearing and smell cannot locate precisely, they are thrown back on the sensorimotor apparatus of their bodies. Vision is the royal road to Cartesian disembodied perception; in its absence, the dualistic representationalist paradigm of pre-existing observers “parachuted into” a pre-existing external world collapses. In depicting the struggle of the white-blind to regain their humanity, Blindness highlights the intrinsic creativity of world-making. Cut off from their familiar sighted lifeworld, the newly white-blind are reborn as new cognitive agents who must embark on an entirely new process of ontogeny, connecting with an unfamiliar environment and interacting with other humans in new ways. Saramago’s post-apocalyptic novel also illustrates the possibilities and limits of social autopoiesis: on this subject, Saramago implicitly concurs with Maturana, who strongly rejected Luhmann’s claims that autopoiesis can be extended beyond biology to large social systems such as law, economy, art, etc. (Varela’s position was more ambivalent). Saramago’s white-blind protagonists show that post-apocalyptic survival is dependent on what Maturana and Varela call social coupling between individuals. But this social coupling is strictly limited to small, face-to-face self-organizing collectives, ruling out autonomous social systems (all large modern social systems, including the state and capitalism, are defunct as a result of the plague). It is as a symbiotic collective of a handful of people that the white-blind protagonists of Blindness regain their humanity.

Graham Harman: Next on your list is a philosopher we both know personally, Markus Gabriel. He’s one of those people who knows both the continental and analytic traditions in philosophy very well, as is easy to see from the breadth of references in his books. But given your interest in what you call “complex and embedded wholes,” and Gabriel’s famous rejection of that whole of wholes that we call “the world,” where do you find your point of agreement with him? Is it in his notion of “fields,” or something else?

Monika Kaup: In the genesis of this book project, Markus Gabriel’s fields of sense ontology plays a special role as a catalyst of sorts. It was my encounter with it that helped all the pieces of the project come together and form a coherent whole. The common denominator shared by all new realisms featured in my book was to be an endorsement of organized wholes, rather than isolated objects, as the defining characteristic of the real. In my view, Gabriel does more than model a particular variety of contextual realism (centered on what he calls fields); he also describes a larger paradigm that can be recognized in different manifestations. As my book argues, these extend beyond philosophy, coming from a large variety of academic disciplines, including systems thinking in the sciences, the disciplinary home of neurophenomenologists Maturana and Varela.

The principles of fields of sense ontology are clear and can be deduced from a simple thought experiment that Gabriel likes to rehearse in various forms. Assume that you are looking a table covered with various objects, and ask yourself: How many objects are on the table? The answer seems obvious: the finite number of pens, books, plates, cups or whatever else is found there. Yet this same setting can also be examined by a nuclear physicist. In the place of a finite number of macrocosmic objects, she would perceive an infinite number of subatomic particles. Change contexts again, assuming the table is located in an art museum. The answer here might be that there is only one object, because the table and its contents are part of the same installation by Joseph Beuys. As this rendering Gabriel’s thought experiment shows, what counts as an object depends on the field in which it appears—the everyday lifeworld, the atomic world at the smallest scale of existence, or the field of art. There are no pre-given objects outside of contexts. However, as noted earlier, once the nature of the field has been established, it is clear what counts as real.

Thus, according to Gabriel, fields are real, not objects. Objects don’t ground fields, fields ground objects. Gabriel defends a radical ontological pluralism: there is an infinite number of fields, and none is more fundamental than another in the sense that it is reducible to it. Gabriel’s irreductionism (to use the Latourian phrase) in part derives from the phenomenon of emergence discussed earlier. Subatomic articles are not the “deeper reality” behind tables; although tables are composed of them, they are not reducible to them (because the emergent properties of tables cannot be deduced from the properties of their subatomic parts). Similarly, for Gabriel, reality is not limited to physical and spatiotemporal objects (tables, particles, etc.). In the present example, what counts as art is a human construct, yet the table in the art museum is “really” a different table than the one in the dining room—even though Beuys may have used his own dining table to create the artwork. That is because Beuys’s artworks can fetch tens—even hundreds—of thousands of euros at an auction.

While Gabriel’s use of the concept of appearance derives from a phenomenological genealogy (Heidegger and Husserl), Gabriel’s rejection of totality anchored in the concept of world (“the world as a unified totality does not exist”) seems to have a multiple ancestry, which combines Heidegger, Wittgenstein, and set theory (at the very least). The world is the totality of immaterial facts as well as of spatiotemporal things (Wittgenstein). The world is the domain of domains (Heidegger) in which all fields of sense appear. But this overarching totality or field of all fields of sense does not exist (set theory’s infinite regress: there is no all-encompassing set of all sets because the set of all possible subsets is larger than the original set).

Fields of sense ontology modeled the larger paradigm of contextual realism for me, for more than one reason. For one, it accounts for a plurality of fields, both material (physical things) and immaterial (facts, or linguistic and social artifacts). It thus offers a strong defense of the reality of mental and social artifacts (such as literature) without denying their human fabrication. Put another way, it presents a strong realist theory that is not confined to materialism or naturalism. Scientific reductionism, on Gabriel’s argument, is wrong because the scientific universe in which scientific objects such as genes or atoms appear is merely an “ontological province” of the world. A close contender as a paradigm-setting theory of contextual realism—for my purposes—is systems theory. This is thanks to its formulation of the defining shift from objects to the interrelationships in which objects are embedded, as well as to the systems theoretical concept of emergence that accounts for reality at multiple scales of existence. As for its drawbacks, most of its examples are taken from science. Conversely, the concept of fields makes a strong statement of ontological pluralism, leveling the ontological playing field and making space to assert the singular ontology of humanistic objects, including literature.

Stay tuned

“A Conversation with Graham Harman and Monika Kaup on ‘New Ecological Realisms’” Part 4 coming soon!


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About the book

Book cover of New Ecological Realisms
New Ecological Realisms
Post-Apocalyptic Fiction and Contemporary Theory

Presents post-apocalyptic fiction as a unique source of new realist ontologies

  • Shows how new realism reshapes humanistic inquiry in the age of climate change
  • Contributes to the rehabilitation and reframing of realism after postmodernism
  • Introduces a new contextual and ecological realism that reconnects the human cultural world with non-humans and the environment

About the author

Monika Kaup is Professor of English at the University of Washington. She is the author of Neobaroque in the Americas: Alternative Modernities in Literature, Visual Art, and Film (University of Virginia Press 2012) and she is co-editor of Baroque New Worlds: Representation, Transculturation, Counterconquest (Duke University Press 2010).

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