Selbstreferenz in Literatur und Wissenschaft. Kronauer, Grünbein, Maturana, Luhmann by Von Florian Lippert (review)
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Selbstreferenz in Literatur und Wissenschaft. Kronauer, Grünbein, Maturana, Luhmann.
Von Florian Lippert. München: Fink, 2013. 214Seiten. €28.90.

The systems theory approach to German Studies seems to have passed its peak, and yet terms such as “self-reference” or “autopoiesis” remain integral components of the language of literary studies. In this way, however, autopoiesis and self-reference have lost connection to their history; a history, to be sure, that not only leads back to systems theory, but to the natural sciences of the early 1970s as well. Therefore, it is astonishing that work on these terminologies, or on the history of these terms, barely exists. In this sense, Florian Lippert’s book Selbstreferenz in Literatur und Wissenschaft. Kronauer, Grünbein, Maturana, Luhmann is a pioneering work. Indeed, it is probably the first book in the field of German Studies that connects self-reference and autopoiesis not merely to social studies and the work of Niklas Luhmann, but to the natural sciences as well.

Lippert’s book deals with the comprehensive history of the theories behind self-referentiality: from the work of biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory to (post-)modern German poetry. However, Lippert does not approach self-referentiality as a historian of science, but rather, he analyzes the term as a literary scholar, by way of an accurate discourse analysis, and with an emphasis on the epistemological impact of the term. Based on the assertion that “Selbstreferenz” is a main feature of modern literature, his book recounts the history of the theories behind the term concerning the natural sciences and systems theory, while connecting it to contemporary German literature. Though it can be questioned whether “Selbstreferenz” is really a key feature of modern literature, given that the analysis of only two very specific German authors in Lippert’s book cannot amount to providing full proof of this theory, Lippert’s analysis of self-referential procedure in the work of Brigitte Kronauer and of Durs Grünbein is striking. By example of these two writers, Lippert shows how the theory of “Selbstreferenz” is connected to literary processes in both halves of this well-structured investigation.

In the first part (“Relationalität und Selbstdiskursivierung in den Lebens- und Sozialwissenschaften,” 45–112), self-referential theories are analyzed as two main conceptions of autopoiesis: the “founding” of the term by Maturana and Varela, and the systems theoretical adaption of the term by Niklas Luhmann. What is autopoiesis in the work of Maturana and Varela? The term describes the unique ability of living creatures to preserve themselves by never-ending, self-sustaining processes in a system—“die einzigartige Fähigkeit eines (als Einheit oder ‘Maschine’ betrachteten) Lebewesens, sich selbst [ . . . ] zu erhalten, und zwar, indem diese Eigenschaften durch das System selbst beständig reproduziert werden” (52). The pivotal moment of the [End Page 724] theory of autopoiesis lies not only in the self-sustaining process, but also in the relationality of the body and of society. Therefore, body and society are no longer determined by a substantial core, but as a result of relations. The idea of relationality could be explained by the (structuralist) notion that significance is determined by relations.

Ten years later, in 1984, Niklas Luhmann adapted the concept of autopoiesis for “his” systems theory in Soziale Systeme. While Maturana and Varela are exploring life systems, Luhmann describes autopoiesis as a formal theoretical guideline that will be tested on different systems, without any connection to empirical work. The term autopoiesis enables Luhmann to describe the co-evolutionary expansion of similar patterns (“Denkmuster,” 77) in several disciplines: thermodynamics, neurophysiology, information theory, cybernetics, etc. All of these disciplines have the autopoietic evolution of their own classification in common. Any system (Luhmann is particularly interested in social systems that incorporate forms of communication) is created of its own accord.

After the detailed and sophisticated exposition of Maturana’s, Varela’s, and Luhmann’s work, the second part of the book (“Selbstreflexion und Relationalität in der Literatur,” 113–194) brings literature into its focus. Why is there a connection between Maturana’s, Varela’s, and Luhmann’s theory of autopoiesis and literature? For Lippert...