Next Level Autopoiesis
This is an essay that celebrates stealing. This is a text about the point in which the idea of property trespasses materialities in such a way that any attempt of accountability results absurd. This is the ultimate triumph over fear.
The posthuman art will not have an author, much less an owner, it will be non-human and will be self-reproduced. It will be autopoietic.
We can start traveling this idea by stealing from systems theory, this is the interdisciplinary study of systems that is carried to discover a system’s dynamics, constraints, conditions, etc.
Systems theory has been embraced by post-humanist theorists as a non-anthropocentric perspective for the study of the humanities, and this includes literary works, the renowned posthumanist scholar Cary Wolfe claims:
“In light of the post-humanist imperative I have been invoking thus far, systems theory has much to offer as a general epistemological system. Unlike feminist philosophy of science, it does not cling to debilitating representationalist notions. And unlike Enlightenment humanism in general, its formal descriptions of complex, recursive, autopoietic systems are not grounded in the dichotomy of human and nonhuman” (Wolfe 1995 p.47).
Wolfe narrates how systems theory has evolved from a circular theory of negative feedback (recursivity) to visions that consider environmental factors as the theory of autopoiesis, created by the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela.
Autopoiesis refers to a system capable of reproducing and maintaining itself. This concept was originally developed for the study of cellular chemistry but its use has been extended to areas as cognition, systems theory, social sciences and even literary studies. A general definition of autopoiesis can be found in the glossary of Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living by Maturana and Varela:
“An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network” (Maturana and Varela 1980 p.135).
An example of autopoiesis applied to the humanities is present in the article The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism by Sylvia Wynter, she uses the concept of autopoiesis to explain the process of creating and understanding literature, she positions the human as a trans-subject entity whom, by living, realizes its mode of being (Wynter 1984 p.22). This definition is used by her to build a critique of the patriarchal and racist educational system, which is the environment that determines the behaviours and “objective” standards that scholars have to follow (Wynter 1984 p.39).
The concept of autopoiesis is particularly useful when we study the intersection between machines and art. I’m proposing an endeavor that requires an infrastructural analysis that will provide an understanding of computational environments and the possibilities of a device; and at the same time, its impact at local levels, this is the dimension of writers, readers, makers, and even non-human entities that participate in this multi-kingdom dialogue.
An automated art piece has two autopoietic instances:
- At the conditions of its creation and at the many moments the piece is involved in interactions with human and non-human agents.
- Within environments of artificial intelligence and algorithmic programming, in which self-reproduction and self-sustaining are central to the functioning of its systems.
Regarding the first instance, any advance on the field of automated art needs to consider art as a living entity, this notion is explained using the case of literature by Gayatri Spivak in the preface of On Grammatology by Jacques Derrida “the book is not repeatable in its “identity”: each reading of the book produces a simulacrum of an “original”” (Spivak 1997 p.xii).
And respect to the second instance it is possible to find examples of literary, musical, visual works developed by AI or algorithmic processors, this is the case of literature contests where computer-programmed pieces have participated with texts that are practically indistinguishable from the human-made ones (Lewis 2018). In these cases, the machine takes the place of the human (the writer), which could be considered a clear setting of the anticipated future proposed by Donna Haraway in her Cyborg Manifesto:
“Late-twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines.Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert” (Haraway 1991 p.11).
However, is the mere existence of a computer that replicates human actions an accurate example of a cyborg case? Isn’t it anthropocentric to think about machines whose main objective is to imitate the human? And which human do they imitate? Aren’t they subject to the bias of their creators and their environments?
It is necessary to promote modes of automated digital creation that differ from machines whose aim is to resemble human traits. I am proposing the development and promotion of a type of a type of art that is capable of sustaining itself, a bot-art. This bot-art, with its computational nature at the centre, will be way more closer to the cyborg scenario described by Haraway and also way less anthropocentric than the predictions of mainstream media.
The author is no longer a human, he is not needed anymore, the autopoietic experience allows the outputs to “come to life”, and they will do it necessarily in relation with external agents: the multi-emotional interaction with their consumers and the active code always in motion.
This living entity must be thought in the realm of posthuman knowledge generation, this means the displacement of the anthropocentric value systems (Braidotti 2017). In the case of bot-art, this new knowledge pays attention to the agency of machines, facilitating the expansion of the cyborg world. Donna Haraway describes the cyborg world in this way:
“The cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet (…) From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints. The political struggle is to see from both perspectives at once because each reveals both dominations and possibilities unimaginable from the other vantage point” (Haraway 1991 p.13).
So let’s build kinship between humans and machines. Let’s participate together in the construction of rebellious identities. Let’s challenge official forms of knowledge and let’s produce compelling outputs that will never emerge from any fancy art academy.
The exercise of this essay, is an attempt to identify paths for the creation of knowledge that is mindful of cultural and techno-material conditions. In Situated Knowledges, Donna Haraway, states that this is a major challenge for the new humanities: “our problem is how to have simultaneously an account of the radical historical contingency for all knowledge claims and knowing subjects, a critical practice for recognizing our own “semiotic technologies” for making meanings, and a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a “real” world, one that can be partially shared and friendly to earth-wide projects of finite freedom, adequate material abundance, modest meaning in suffering, and limited happiness” (Haraway 1991 p.187).
When analysing a digital instance it is necessary to acknowledge the bias of their foundations, this is the fundamental first step in our autopoietic adventure. At the design stage, all digital services are given a set of algorithmic rules that will guide the behavior of the service. Xenofeminist researchers, among many other critics of internet technologies, have denounced how material conditions and gendered expectations cultivate or restrict certain forms of knowledge, this results in an ecosystem of exclusionary networked communication technologies (Hester 2018 p.89).
However, the rightful skepticism towards racist, neocolonial and misogynist technology, must not lead us to a regressive and conservative approach to automated developments and its expressions. Because of the recent events involving bots and fake news for influencing political elections, the official stand of digital corporations towards bots has been a position of censorship, the public uses the word bot as an insult, and the obstacles for the creation of bots have been progressively increasing. Big tech companies have taken an active position against anonymity with the use of mechanisms as the request of phone numbers and the use of “real” names. In Twitter for example, many artistic bots are now dead because of the elimination of their accounts at the admin level. The developers of these bots have moved to other platforms with open standards such as Mastodon or they are insisting to stay in Twitter’s unwelcoming environment. Both ways are in line with the Xenofeminist idea of circumnavigate the gatekeepers of the super surveilled and controlled digital world (Hester 2018 p.137).
The fact that artistic bots are, at worst, persecuted nowadays in this cyber witch hunt, or at best, just ignored, gives us a clue on the lack of consideration towards artistic production made by non-humans. Sylvia Wynter in The Ceremony Must Be Found: After Humanism proposes a re-writing of knowledge as the only way to advance as a culture. I believe this new knowledge must overcome our current state of technological rationality and open a path for a loving cyborg world in which human, animal and machine will interact in harmony creating an inter-kingdom dream.
Wynter explains that every transgressive cultural advance has always looked like a heresy in the first place. So I have to ask. What’s so terrible about a bot creating your next favorite song? What’s the problem about loving an android? Can’t you just accept that your technological devices will outlive you in an autopoietic eternal expansion? What are you afraid of?
If giving certain machines the capacity to live is a heresy, then that is a path that it is worthy to explore.
- Braidotti, R. (2017). “Posthuman Critical Theory.” Journal of Posthuman Studies 1(1): 9-25.
- Haraway, D. (1991). A Cyborg Manifesto, Routledge.
- Haraway, D. (1991). Situated Knowledges. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York, Routledge: 149-181.
- Hester, H. (2018). Xenofeminism. London, Polity.
- Lewis, D. (2018). An AI-Written Novella Almost Won a Literary Prize. Smithsonian.
- Maturana, H. and F. Varela (1980). Autopoiesis and Cognition: the Realization of the Living. Dordrecht, D. Reidel Publishing Company.
- Spivak, G. (1997). Preface. Of Grammatology. Baltimore, The John Hopkins University Press.
- Varela, F. (1995). The Emergent Self. The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution. J. Brockman. New York City, Simon & Schuster.
- Wolfe, C. (1995). “In Search of Post-Humanist Theory: The Second-Order Cybernetics of Maturana and Varela.” Cultural Critique 30(The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part I): 33-70.
- Wynter, S. (1984). “The Ceremony Must be Found: After Humanism.” Boundary 2 12(3): 19-70.
Danae is a working-class feminist writer, multimedia artist and technologist. She is a lecturer of Hacking at the Willem de Kooning Academy and the founder of The Digital Witchcraft Institute, an arts organization dedicated to collect and showcase advanced non-conforming approaches to the use of technology. Her practice reflects on posthuman technology, deep migrations and climate justice.