Poesis, Autopoesis, Autopoethics – Ed Cohen


With this sweeping cosmological perspective, the Archangel Michael brings the second book of James Merill’s The Changing Light at Sandover to a close. As the culmination of a text written in answer to the commandment: “WE MUST HAVE POEMS OF SCIENCE” issuing from voices that “SPEAK FROM WITHIN THE ATOM,” (Merill, 1982: 113) Michael’s oracular utterance appears at and as the threshold of a divine pedagogy that opens, in the final book of The Changing Light on a series of ‘lessons’ which transform the ‘space’ of the poem into an angelic schoolroom where the characters – who are, of course, both more and less than themselves – receive instruction in the ways of this ‘accumulated intelligence.’ Michael’s pronouncement then can be read both as an invitation and as an admonition: an invitation to enter into workings of this intelligence and an admonition not to assume that human knowledge is commensurate with its cumulative possibilities. It seems we are very far here from Milton’s more ‘enlightened’ endeavor to ‘justify the ways of God to man.’ Rather with Merrill we appear to have reached the point at which God must enjoin the scribe to ‘explain the ways of science to man.’ To a modern sensibility – though perhaps not to a post- or non-modern one – the notion of a poetic translation of science at the behest of God might seem absurd at best. For within what Bruno Latour has labeled the ‘modern constitution’ not only do poetry and science appear as opposing representatives of society and nature, but God has in turn (and as a result) been ‘crossed out twice. Within the modern constitution:

Reinterpretation of the ancient Christian theological themes made it possible to bring God’s transcendence and his immanence into play simultaneously. But this lengthy task of the sixteenth-century Reformation would produce very different results had it not got mixed up with the task of the seventeen century, the conjoined invention of scientific facts and citizens. Spirituality was reinvented: the all powerful God could descend into men’s heart of hearts without intervening in any way in their external affairs. A wholly individual and wholly spiritual religion made it possible to criticize both the ascendancy of science and that of society, without needing to bring God into either. The moderns could now be both secular and pious at the same time. This last constitutional guarantee was given not by a supreme God but by an absent God–yet His absence did not prevent people from calling on Him at will in the privacy of their own hearts. His position became literally ideal, since he was bracketed twice over, once in metaphysics and again in spirituality. He would no longer interfere in any way with the development of the moderns, but he remained effective and helpful within the spirit of humans alone (Latour: 33-4).

Merrill’s is a decidedly non-modern undertaking, then, precisely in so far as it undoes God’s ablation through an undisguised metaphoric substitution: as neither supreme nor absent but as metaphor, or perhaps better yet, as the metaphoricity of metaphor, God is ‘[un]bracketed twice over’ in Merrill’s twentieth-century reworking of The Divine Comedy. Metaphor, it seems, manifests its divinity by marking itself as such. Indeed, perhaps nothing signifies the ‘will to truth’ of Merrill’s poetic undertaking so clearly as the diacritical device with which the eponymous peacock guide of the Book of Mirabell comes to mark his tropes: ‘Our peacock, we have noticed, more and more/ Embellishes his text with metaphor./ Some aren’t bad; he likes to signal them/ With a breezy parenthetic (m). (Merrill, 1982:173) Neither redeeming nor abjuring the metaphoricity of metaphor, Merrill’s ‘accumulated intelligence’ speaks through, across, around, and within the characters gathered by the poem’s central device: a Ouija board. Using this metaphoric telegraph, Merrill’s etheric interlocutors enter into the mundane through an overturned tea cup as emissaries of a cosmic understanding that envelops the knowledge effects of science in a mythic quest for a suitable audience. Thus, God appears both as metaphor and as science, as metaphoric science and scientific metaphor, as well as all the slippages in between. Of course, following Donna Haraway’s observation that ‘a research program is virtually always also a very mobile metaphor’ (Haraway,1997: 83) we will probably today take all this in stride. Yet we should not be lulled by our ready acquiescence to the reclaiming of techne by poesisinto forgetting Haraway’s corollary proposition: ‘Metaphors are tools and tropes,’ she says. ‘The point is to learn to remember that we might have been otherwise, and might yet be as a matter of embodied fact’ (Haraway,1997: 39). In other words, simply remembering that metaphor subtends science, that science is metaphor, entirely misses the radical implications of this proposition if we neglect to affirm simultaneously the ethical possibilities to which the metaphoricity of metaphor must always give rise. To bring science and poetry together on the side – or site – of poetry, then, as Merrill does at the behest of atomic utterances which announce: ‘YOU MUST MAKE GOD OF SCIENCE/ TELL OF POWER MANS Z IGNORANCE FEARES THE POWER WE ARE/ THAT FEAR STOPS PARADISE’ (Merrill, 1982:113), only adumbrates an aporia covered over by a fear which (re)produces ignorance in the place of intelligence. Yet in Merrill’s undertaking this substitution is a productive catachresis since it constitutes a work of scripture, of writing, as an emanation of an intelligence not opposed to, but inside of, science. As the nominal and noumenal subject of science, God Biology, or God B as he is more familiarly known to his intimates, uses the poet as his agent precisely in order to reanimate the metaphoricity of a language game (i.e., science) whose ‘truth’ appears as the mortification of metaphor, as dead metaphor, as metaphor so petrified that it seems to provide an unassailable bridge to the things-in-themselves. Obviously this putatively scientific truth is also the truth of the moderns, a truth which Nietzsche in his inimitable and inimical way characterizes precisely as the forgetting of metaphor.

What therefore is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonymies, anthropomorphisms: in short a sum of human relations which become poetically and rhetorically intensified, metamorphosed, adorned, and after long usage seem to a nation fixed, cannonic and binding; truths are illusions of which one has forgotten that they are illusions; worn-out metaphors which are powerless to affect the senses; coins with their images effaced and now no longer of account as coins but merely metal. Still, we do not yet know whence the impulse to truth comes, for up to now we have only heard about the obligations which society imposes in order to exist: to be truthful, that is to use the usual metaphors; therefore, expressed morally, we have heard only about the obligation to lie according to a fixed convention, to lie gregariously in a style binding for all. Now man of course forgets that matters are going thus with him, he therefore lies in that fashion pointed out unconsciously and according to habits of centuries standing–and by this very unconsciousness, by this very forgetting, he arrives at a feeling of truth. (Nietzsche, 1964: 92)

For Nietzsche, the forgetting-of-metaphor-which-calls-itself-truth reveals simultaneously an appropriation and a disavowal: an appropriation of the world as ‘properly’ human, as a ‘striv[ing] for an understanding of the world as a humanlike thing’ through which we ‘gain at best the feeling of an assimilation’ (Nietzsche, 1964: 94); and also a disavowal of the creativity which is indeed properly human, frozen instead as a truth engendered ‘only by the fact that man forgets himself as a subject, and what is more, as an artistically creating subject’ (Nietzsche, 1964: 94). What Nietzsche reminds us then about this game of truth that we modern humans have tried to play with the world is that we have willed it so though our own amnesia, a willing which is at once a forgetting and a choosing. To know the world ‘in truth’ we turn away from our responsibility for the transformative power which our knowing enacts:

[F]or between two utterly different spheres, as between subject and object, there is no causality, no accuracy, no expression, but at the utmost, an aesthetic relation – I mean an allusive transposition, a stammering translation in a quite distinct foreign language, for which purpose, however, there is needed at any rate an intermediate sphere, an intermediate force, freely composing, and freely inventing. (Nietzsche, 1964: 94)

As mediators, as purveyors of metaphors, as transports across boundaries, humans provide relays between ‘different spheres’ – indeed, Nietzsche seems to suggest we are these relays. Human propriety as impropriety: Our ‘fundamental impulse’ the ‘impulse towards the formation of metaphors’ (Nietzsche, 1964: 97). And with this formulation, Nietzsche brings us to the brink of that most non-modern of insights: humans are metaphors – metaphorically speaking, of course. But what do I mean by this? Understanding metaphor as a catachresis, as a crossing between incommensurable realms, as a carrying across thresholds of difference, as an impropriety taken in the name of asserting a proper likeness, metaphor marks the transformative effects of an accumulated intelligence which bears within it difference and sameness alike. Psyche/soma, soul/flesh, mind/body, human organism: metaphor founds the distinctive similarities which found the species homo sapiens, in so far as we are one. As Jacques Derrida tells us in ‘White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy’: ‘What is fundamental corresponds to the desire for a firm and ultimate ground, a terrain to build on, the earth as a support of an artificial structure (Derrida, 1982: 224). Desire not reason, Derrida suggests. puts into play the metaphors which ground us on the earth. Yet this earthing – or to use Heidegger’s version, ‘worlding’ – of humans in and as metaphor is itself always already lacking the metaphor of metaphor, dare we say, ‘man’.

If one wished to conceive and class all the metaphorical possibilities of philosophy, one metaphor, at least, would remain excluded, outside the system: the metaphor, at the very least, without which the entire concept of metaphor could not be constituted, or, to syncopate an entire chain of reasoning, the metaphor of metaphor. The extra metaphor, remaining outside the field that it allows to be circumscribed, extracts or abstracts itself from this field, thus subtracting itself as a metaphor less. By virtue of what we might entitle, for economic reasons, tropic supplementarity, since the extra turn of speech becomes the missing turn of speech, the taxonomy or history of philosophical metaphors will never make a profit. The state or the status of the complement will always be denied to the interminable dehiscence of the supplement (if we may be permitted to garden this botanical metaphor). The field is never saturated. (Derrida, 1982: 219-220)

As Derrida adumbrates the constitutive perturbation that metaphor performs in and as philosophy, he locates an unrelenting disturbance in Western rationality. Within the text of philosophy a rupture occurs, a rupture which Derrida sutures by italicizing an arcane biological metaphor: dehiscence. Now this is hardly a coincidental suturing since, indeed, in its medical valence, dehiscence designates a critical rending of tissues which demands immediate suturing –in the least figurative possible sense. However, in this context Derrida offers ‘dehiscence’ as a botanical trope, as an organic metaphor more or less that carries the less or more of metaphor. Botanically speaking, dehiscence signifies a splitting open or a gaping by a divergence of elements, especially as part of an organic process: for example a seed pod dehisces to discharge its mature contents. The ‘interminable dehiscence’ of metaphor in the forever unsaturated gardens of philosophy, then, suggests that the supplementarity of metaphor remarks, transports, transforms organic possibilities which remain outside the highly-cultured fields of knowledge and which perhaps constitute them as an extrusion. In a similar sense, Lacan affirms in The Mirror Stage: ‘[i]n man . . . th[e] relation to nature is altered by a certain dehiscence at the heart of the organism, a primordial Discord’ (Lacan, 1977: 4). Split open, splayed, riven at the heart, metaphor dehisces the human organism and thereby makes it human. Yet I don’t mean this entirely metaphorically. For perhaps it makes sense to understand that the metaphoricity of the human organism is precisely what enables it to exist as such. When we speak of an organism we circumscribe the putative singularity and integrity of a living structure: in so far as an organism is, it is for us a living being, a life form. Yet as Gilbert Simondon suggests, the possibility of individuation is but a frozen moment in a life process: for living organisms individuation occurs equally in the dimensions of time and space.

[T]he individual is to be understood as having a relative reality, occupying only a certain phase of the whole being in question – a phase that therefore carries the implication of a preceding preindividual state, and that, even after individuation, does not exist in isolation, since individuation does not exhaust in the single act of its appearance all the potentials embedded in the preindividual state. Individuation, moreover, not only brings the individual to light but also the individual- milieu dyad. [. . .] Thus, individuation is here considered to form only one part of an ontogenic process in the development of the larger entity. Individuation must therefore be thought of as a partial and relative resolution manifested in a system that contains latent potentials and harbors a certain incompatibility with itself, an incompatibility due at once to forces in tension as well as the impossibility of interaction between terms of extremely disparate dimensions. (Simondon, 1992: 300)

For Simondon, the unproblematic assumption that individuation constitutes the exclusive form of differentiation – that all differences can be marked within individuals – masks the complex exchanges that inform the manifold individuating differentiations of the fields within which life arises. The ‘incompatibility with itself’ that the organism manifests as the ‘phase’ of its existence (re)produces the ‘impossibility of interaction between terms of extremely disparate dimensions.’ Yet the process of living is precisely the putting into relation of these disparate dimensions, the organism representing the temporal and spatial impropriety of their resolution. Thus while the organism can never properly be an individual, at best signaling a moment of the ‘individual-milieu dyad,’ it can be and is a proper ‘metaphor.’ In Nietzsche’s terms, we might say that the organism constitutes an intermediate sphere, an intermediate force, freely composing and freely inventing in so far as it serves as an ‘allusive transposition’ among the dimensions and forces which it holds in tension. The processes of living, then, are metaphorical processes, processes of carrying across and bearing upon the multiple dimensions of the material world, processes of transformation, of fabrication, of creation: in short, processes of poesis. Indeed, it is just this understanding that contemporary theoretical biologists invoke when they claim that life is an autopoetic process:

Contemporary cell biology makes it possible to put forth the characterization of th[e] basic living organization – a bio-logic – as that of an autopoetic system (from Greek: self producing). An autopoetic system – the minimal living organization – is one that continuously produces the components that specify it, while at the same time realizing it (the system) as a concrete unity in time and space, which makes the network of production of components possible. More precisely defined: an autopoetic system is organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (synthesis and destruction) of components such that these components: (i) continuously regenerate and realize the network that produces them, and (ii) constitute the system as a distinguishable unity in the domain in which they exist. (Varela, 1991: 81)

In this description, Chilean biologist Francisco Varela outlines the theoretical domain of autopoesis. Autopoesis gestures towards the ongoing emergence of an organism in the phase of an existence that we call life. It suggests that no organism is ever fully born, or rather, that all organisms are always already in the process of giving birth, not only to themselves but to the worlds in which those “selves” are localized. Our metaphors make it difficult to express fully the codependent, coarising of “the individual-milieu dyad” since, as Nietzsche complains in his famous argument that there is “no doer just the deed,” we are chronically seduced by fictions of agency and causality. Autopoesis does not refer to the self fashioning of an organism out of the raw materials of an environment, where the organism becomes both the subject and the object of the fabricating process. Instead it metaphorically evokes the metaphoricity, the poesis, of the organism as a condition of its (re)production within the context of a biosphere that is itself autopoetic, as evolutionary biologists Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagen remark:

The autopoetic view of life differs from standard teachings in biology. Most writers of biology texts imply that an organism exists apart from its environment, and that the environment is a static, unliving backdrop. Organic beings and environment, however, interweave. [. . .] Independence is a political, not a scientific term. Since life’s origin, all living beings, directly or circuitously, have been connected, as their bodies and populations have grown. Interactions occur, as organisms connect via water and air. [. . . ] Yet it is the sum of these unaccountable interactions that yields the highest level of life: the blue biosphere, in all the holarchic coherence and mysterious grandeur of its budding in and from the black cosmos. (Margulis & Sagan, 1995: 26)

Autopoesis expresses life, but only as paradoxical processes of non-local localizations taking place on incommensurate scales: differentiations that (re)produce continuities of ever increasing magnitudes. Hence the “self” which autopoesis brings into being is an essentially non-localized entity whose provisional localization is precisely the bringing into relation of disparate dimensions, the budding of the cellular and the celestial, the crossing of cosmic and the subatomic in the impropriety of a “metaphorical” transformation. What is proper to autopoetic systems, then, like all metaphoric operators, is impropriety. Franciso Varela makes this point succinctly when he describes ‘the intriguing paradoxicality proper to an autonomous identity: the living system must distinguish itself from its environment, while at the same time maintaining its coupling; this linkage cannot be detached since it is against this very environment from which the organism arises, comes forth’ (Margulis & Sagan, 1995: 85). When we unproblematically refer to “an organism,” we forget the paradox which our utterance contains. In so far as it “is,” the organism is a field effect. Gilbert Simondon draws out the implications of this understanding:

The living being, which is simultaneously more and less that a unity, possesses an internal problematic and is capable of being an element in a problematic that has a wider scope than itself. As far as the individual is concerned, participation here means being an element in a much larger process of individuation by means of the inheritance of preindividual reality that the individual contains–that is, due to the potentials it has retained. [. . .] Its inheritance of preindividual reality allows collective individuation–which plays the role here of psychic individuation–to contribute to resolution, at the same time as this preindividual reality is individualized as a psychic being that goes beyond the limits of the individuated being and incorporates it in a wider system of the world and the subject. Individuation in its collective aspect makes a group individual, one that is associated with the group through the preindividual reality it carries within itself, conjoining it to all other individuals; it individuates as a collective unit. (Simondon, 1992: 306-7)

Collective individual, group individual: these oxymorons express the conjunctural dissonance that individuation (re)produces in the fields of its emergence. What we take to be the singularity proper to the living organism – and especially to humans whom we take to be the summa of all organicity – is a fiction that conceptually arrests the life processes that make such concepts thinkable in the first place. As a matter of course – or as a course of matter – living processes effect crossings, exchanges, transactions, rearrangements, fluxes and flows articulated and reiterated both regularly and irregularly, continuously and discontinuously for unaccountable durations of time and over undefinable expanses of space in dimensions unknowable and unlimited. Lest we forget the metaphoricity that we all too often reductively call “human nature,” Margulis and Sagen remind us: ‘Independence is a political term.’ Life does not know independence, only coexistence: whether pacific or violent, whether synthetic or disruptive, there is only coextensive, coeval, coarising all around. To forget this constitutive conjunction is a political and ethical choice. It is a “decision” in the most radical sense: that is, a cutting, a dividing, a de-termination which parses the world into disjunctive realms. Yet living provisionally and proleptically binds up the disjunctive in a catachresis that marks the impropriety of a collective and contingent poesis. Autopoesis is also an autopoethics. In her essay ‘The Promise of Monsters, Donna Haraway (1997) makes a similar observation about the im-mediacy of collective individuation in a slightly different way. Using the rubric, “social nature” to encompass the agents and actants which coalesce in the struggles over the future of the Amazonian rainforests, Haraway encourages us to think together the ensemble of vectors that intersect in the contested time and space of a transglobal contact zone. Bio-politics is a bio-logic:

There will be no nature without justice. Nature and justice, contested discursive objects embodied in the material world, will become extinct or survive together. Theory here is exceedingly corporeal, and the body is a collective: it is an historical artifact constituted by humans as well as organic and technological unhuman actors. (Haraway, 1997: 311)

Defamiliarizing the object boundaries that have historically defined human bodies over and against a world, which is concomitantly constituted as the negative horizon of destruction and death, Haraway asks us to learn to have a bit of humility. Hubris is a human trait precisely in so far as we assert humanness as an essentially differential quality. Instead, Haraway suggest that under in name of ‘justice’ we might begin to advance what she calls a ‘politics of articulation,’ a politics predicated on the apprehension that: ‘We are all in chiasmatic borderlands, liminal areas where new shapes, new kinds of action and responsibility are gestating in the world’ (Haeaway, 1997: 314). Chiasmus and liminality, action and responsibility: these are the conditions of possibility for a politics which affirms the ethical opportunity for a celebratory in-decision, for a living beyond “the” living, for a transformative choosing that affirms the contingency of all indetermanent arisings and recognizes ‘that we might have been otherwise, and might yet be as a matter of embodied fact.’ In his exquisite meditation The Coming Community, Giorgio Agamben alerts us to the ethical context of the bio-logic that we call our lives:

The fact that must constitute the point of departure for any discourse on ethics is that there is no essence, no historical or spiritual vocation, no biological destiny that humans must enact or realize. This is the only reason that something like an ethics can exist, because it is clear that if humans were or had to be this or that substance, this or that destiny, no ethical experience would be possible–there would only be tasks to be done. This does not mean however, that humans are not, and do not have to be, something, that they are simply consigned to nothingness and therefore can freely decide whether to be or not to be, to adopt or not to adopt, this or that destiny. There is in effect something that humans are and have to be, but this something is not an essence nor properly a thing: It is the simple fact of one’s own existence as possibility or potentiality. But precisely because of this things become complicated; precisely because of this ethics becomes effective. (Agamben, 1993: 43)

While Agamben continues to rely on the metaphor of “the human” to designate the constitutive contingency from which ethics can emerge, he nevertheless adumbrates the autopoetic imperative which ethics addresses to the living “human organism.” For, the “possibility” or “potentiality” which imbue “one’s own existence” are indeed never “one’s own” – historically, spiritually, or biologically. It is this impropriety which inspires the organism, apprising it, in the moments of its indecision, with the something more, the something other, the something beyond, the something-yet-to-be, that constitutes its ethical determination as “self” determination – where “self” metaphorically, catachristically, improperly localizes the codependent coarising of the living. In remembering that autopoesis is poesis, then, we recall that the metaphoricity of metaphor belies “the truth” of the human subject qua subject. We can only ever “be” in so far as we are an “ethical opportunity” waiting to happen. The choice is ours: poesis, autopoesis, autopoethics. Same difference.


Agamben, G. (1993)The Coming Community. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Derrida, J. (1982) ‘White Mythology: Metaphor in the Text of Philosophy’ in Margins of Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Haraway, D. (1997) Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan_ Meets_OncoMouseTMFeminism and Technoscience. New York: Routledge.

– (1992) ‘The Promise of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d others’, pp. 295-337 in Grossberg, Nelson, Treichler (eds).Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge.

Lacan, J. (1977) Ecrits. New York: Norton.

Latour, B. (1993) We Have Never Been Modern. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Margulis, L. & Sagen, D. (1995) What is Life? New York: Simon & Schuster.

Merrill, J. (1982) The Changing Light at Sandover. New York: Atheneum.

Nietzsche, F. (1964) ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense’, pp.173-185 in Levy O. (ed.) The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche. New York: Russell.

Simondon, G. (1992) ‘The Genesis of the Individual’, pp.297-319 in Cary, J. & Kinter, S.Z. Incorporations. New York: Urzone Inc.

Varela, F. (1991) ‘Organism: A Meshwork of Selfless Selves’, pp. 79-107 in Taber, A. (ed.) Organism and the Origins of Self. Boston: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

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