- Between Science and Literature: An Introduction to Autopoetics
In Between Science and Literature: An Introduction to Autopoetics, Ira Livingston, focusing on performativity, treats the text itself as occasion for play. He coins terms such as “autopoetics” (his renaming of autopoiesis—self-making, minus the “i,” which has traditionally stood for a discrete self), writes creative interludes that build “epistemological art” using household items (in his words, “Michel Foucault meets Martha Stewart”), and even provides stage directions (a quoted passage about eugenics should be read in a “Dr. Strangelove accent”). All of this playing, however, has a serious point: to look at the possibilities of theory in the here-and-now requires testing the limits of our own imagination. As Livingston states: “[O]ne can still ask productively of a theory: What can it do and where can it go? What is it possible to think and to do with it, and what kinds of things or thoughts does it make more difficult or unintelligible?” (10). These questions invariably raise the issue of self-reference, and Livingston considers the ways that systems loop in on themselves at all levels.
That the book’s form is also recursive—for relatively brief chapters echo one another and encourage perspective shifting and cross-disciplinary exploration—makes reviewing the book a bit of a challenge. But at the risk of betraying the author’s nonlinear approach, I want to trace out where his ideas are heading. He promotes self-referentiality as creating opportunities for metadiscourses (in which literary texts, as he illustrates throughout, play a significant part) that sustain interdisciplinary work. For instance, the central concept of autopoetics—that systems are not static, but instead are always in the state of becoming—both enables cultural theory’s voicing of performativity and gives rise to the idea, supported by Livingston’s quote from Lee Smolin, that “there are no things, only processes” (80) in relativity theory in physics. We then turn to a fascinating account of Humberto Maturana’s development of autopoiesis through his crossing of political and disciplinary boundaries: his participation in the student takeover of the University of Chile in May 1968 causes his rethinking of the philosophy of organization that initiates the transformation of circular organization in cognition into autopoiesis, a term derived from poiesis (creation, production) in an essay on Don Quixote by his friend, Jose Bulnes (85–86). The invention of autopoiesis models, at a metadiscursive level, how, according to Livingston, “[p]art of the circularity of an autopoetic system is a kind of causal loop, which also appears as a kind of time loop” (88). But if this episode has a reconciliatory ending, others do not. Livingston invokes the debate over a 1990 repatriation act, restricting the collecting of [End Page 303] artifacts on Native American lands, that reifies traditional ways of validating truth claims. Archaeologists, protesting that their pursuit of knowledge was at stake, overlooked how their acts of “discovery” legitimate colonialist ideology by assuming the mantle of objectivity for their narratives about the origins of Native Americans and downplay the value of competing narratives developed by Native Americans themselves.
To resolve such conflicts, Livingston proposes what he calls a “no-trump bid” that allows us “to work maximally between temporal and cultural frameworks, between disciplines, between identity categories, and between the universalizing zoom of theory and the extreme close-up of historicist description” (111). His proposal, which comes by way of poststructuralist theory, serves a specific and crucial function: “enacting the more sprawling and edge-of-chaos kind of performativity and autopoetics (as against the interiorized and discrete kind)” (111). Thus Livingston’s concern about theory is not that it is sprawling and chaotic, but rather not sprawling and chaotic enough. For, he argues, that is the only way to interrogate the ideological frames that shape what we think we know. Take, for example, George Lord Macartney’s 1793 visit with the Chinese emperor Qianlong, recounted in James Hevia’s Cherishing Men from Afar (1995). Livingston connects how the constitution of modernity depends...