- Autopoiesis und Literatur. Die kurze Geschichte eines endlosen Verfahrens by Marcel Schmid
In Autopoiesis und Literatur. Die kurze Geschichte eines endlosen Verfahrens, Marcel Schmid sets out to examine the notoriously nebulous concept of "autopoiesis"—a term originally coined in the 1970s by the Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to refer to living systems, such as cells, that are self-producing and self-maintaining—with reference to modern German literature and contemporary literary theory. As Schmid acknowledges at the outset of his monograph, though, there exists as yet no coherent, monolithic definition of "autopoiesis," only a loose assemblage of attempted explanations from different disciplinary perspectives. While this lack of clarity might seem to pose a major challenge for Schmid's interdisciplinary undertaking, it also opens up opportunities—as his monograph repeatedly demonstrates—for novel approaches to the topics of self-thematization and auto-reflexivity in literature.
In light of the vagueness surrounding the term "autopoiesis," Schmid tasks himself with two principal objectives: first, to elucidate what autopoiesis means at the level of literary form by way of close readings of selected texts from Heinrich von Kleist (Chapter 1) and Franz Kafka (Chapter 2), which are accompanied by numerous excursuses on interrelated topics and authors (these include Johann Georg Hamann, Walter Benjamin, and Roland Barthes); and second, to retrace the brief historical trajectory of the concept's migration from cognitive biology to systems theory and, finally, to literary theory (Chapter 3). Schmid then concludes with a succinct summary of his genealogical reconstruction of the concept of autopoiesis, as well as a final synthesis of the arguments put forth across the preceding chapters (Chapter 4).
Before proceeding further, it is worth noting Schmid's suggestive choice of titles for each of the three main chapters: "Verfertigen – Kleist" (Chapter 1), "Verhandeln – Kafka" (Chapter 2), and "Verfahren – Autopoiesis" (Chapter 3). The repetition of verbs with the elusive prefix "ver-" underscores what Schmid takes to be one of the fundamental attributes of autopoiesis: movement (11). Along with the transgression of limits (both disciplinary and generic) and the dynamics of deferral (the impossibility of a stable beginning or end), it is above all movement which Schmid thematizes in different ways across the three chapters as a unifying feature of auto-poiesis. From this perspective, both Kleist's "Verfertigen" in "Die allmählige Verfertigung der Gedanken beim Reden" and Kafka's "Verhandeln" in Der Process may be understood as "procedures," that is, as "Verfahren," with the caveat that—as Schmid notes in his chapter on Kleist—neither connote a stable form, but rather "kristallisier[en] Formen aus" (21). In other words, we are dealing in both cases with form processes, and specifically ones which are both "autological"—i.e., they refer only to themselves—and inherently open-ended. Thus, as Schmid points out in his chapter on Kafka, "[w]eder hören die Gedanken in Kleists Essays auf sich zu verfertigen noch geht das Verfahren bei Kafka in ein Urteil über" (80). The anti-teleological thrust of this argument is perhaps best reflected in Schmid's assertion that just as Kleist's "Verfertigung ist […] immer auch ein Sich-Verfahren, ein Sich-Verlieren im 'Fahren'" (35), so too is Kafka's "Prozessverfahren […] selbst ein Verfahren," [End Page 693] indeed, even a "Verfahren des Verfahrens" (131) which begins to turn in on itself again and again the further one proceeds.
Hence, despite the many obvious differences between Kleist's "Die allmählige Verfertigung" and Kafka's Der Process, what unites both texts is the way in which their complex patterns of self-reference explode conventional understandings of literary form, foregrounding instead the processual dynamics of their own unfolding. Crucial here, moreover, is that these processes are not at all monolithic but rather sui generis (48), and Schmid goes to great lengths to explicate the different kinds of self-referential procedures at work in Kleist's and Kafka's texts, from problems of address, paratextuality, and translation in the former to those of legal hermeneutics and the...