- What Is It Like to Be a Human?Sylvia Wynter on Autopoiesis
Sylvia Wynter argues throughout her work for "the elaboration of a new science," a methodological shift emerging at the conf luence of the natural sciences and the study of culture that radiates from the embodiment of "material-semiotic" systems (Wynter 2003, 328; Haraway 1991, 207). Refusing the distinction between a descriptive project and transformative ethical and political commitments, a new "science of the Word" demands alternative imaginaries of seeing and saying that render posable urgent questions confronting humanity today, particularly concerning the partial incorporations and violent denials striating the collective entanglement of such a humanity in the first place. She intensifies the trajectory of research initiated by Frantz Fanon in 1952, when he redirected the human sciences with his brief but profound declaration, "Beside ontogeny and phylogeny stands sociogeny" (Fanon 1967, 4).
And yet, fifty years after Fanon's push toward a new science, in a survey of the scholarship engaging the ongoing destruction of black and brown bodies and their collectivities, Clyde Woods finds one procedure primarily at work. He asks: "Have we become academic coroners? Have the tools of theory, method, instruction, and social responsibility become so rusted that they can only be used for autopsies?" (Woods 2000, 63). An autopsy indexes a kind of verifiable witnessing, etymologically referring to a "seeing for oneself." Woods's haunting question concerns the optical structure of truth in our (de) gradations of the human that separate the privileged observer, symbolically [End Page 61] coded on the side of life, from the marginalized populations already given over to death, present and future cadavers laid out flat for inspection.
In this essay, I want to trace how Wynter deploys Fanon's sociogenetic approach in a manner that turns precisely on such an alternative optic imaginary, a restructuring of the relationship between perception, knowledge, and, ultimately, the very symbolic codes of life and death that define (human) being. To shed the role of the coroner, Wynter articulates sociogenesis through the concept of autopoiesis as coined and theorized by Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana. Autopoiesis repositions the observer, the object of observation and the experience of truth, imagining a circular and self-perpetuating relationship in which "seeing for oneself" is not simply to adjudicate reality but to experience it and make sense of it through the same domain of the seeable and sayable that defines "oneself" and is, in turn, partially created by "oneself." "All doing is knowing," they assert, "and all knowing is doing" (Maturana and Varela 1992, 27). Seen this way, the bodies and collectives excluded from the ethical weight of human existence tell us more than just a forensic tale, as they form part of the circular organization of experience and, hence, being. This move from autopsy to autopoiesis is where Wynter begins, following the experience of those subjects given over to death within a certain regime of being human/human knowing. Far from confirming the truth of that regime, these "liminal subjects" conjugate alternative imaginaries that open a relationship to a world-otherwise.
The demand for a world-otherwise emerges from the historically specific structure of this world defined by the "overrepresentation of Man" or the substitution of a single genre of being human for the generic category of Human Being. Wynter deploys her approach to a new science to excavate the process by which humans in their multiplicity are reduced and negated in the name of a normative, homogenous, singular Human, generally through different pedagogical tactics, political economic techniques, and somatic violence. Wynter begins her investigation in the fifteenth century, periodizing subsequent onto-epistemological shifts from one regime of the human to another, beginning with the move from the "Christian" to "Man1." These labels index, in a particular epoch, the "governing codes of symbolic life/death," as well as the imaginary and material boundary projects defining difference cartographically realized in a "space of otherness" (Wynter 2015, 37; Wynter 1989, 642).
The epochal significance of 1492 for Wynter, both in its historical facticity and as a site of contemporary historical investment, usefully adumbrates this approach. In her essay "1492 : A World View," Wynter considers the...