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Buried for decades in a deep and stony prison, the high priest Tzinacàn at last deciphers the message hidden by his god on the living skin of his jaguar companion. Yet, he is no longer interested in deploying the power of his discovery to rescue himself. This bitter moment in Borges’s La escritura del dios (“The writing of the god”) presents a narrative deconstruction of metaphysical ideas that may well apply to their modern revival in the language of science, as the quest for simple universal rules and the construction of fur patterns as cellular automata are not too far from the cabbalistic concerns of the Mayan prisoner. Even the autopoietic construction of the living risks contributing to the modern process of recasting ontotheology as physiology.

All significant concepts of modern biology are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of nature, whereby, for example, the omnipotent god became the omnipotent natural causality—but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. Mutation in biology is analogous to miracle in theology.1 Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas on the nature of the living developed in the last centuries.

Disquieting Continuities

In 1922, Carl Schmitt writes the original version2 of the above epigraph in order to expose the continuity between medieval juridico-political thought, which he characterizes as political theology, and modern theories of the state. Schmitt’s notion of secularization, which expresses the genetic derivation of the modern juridico-political constructions of the state, is no doubt controversial; yet, Schmitt has the merit of challenging the presumed theoretical autonomy of modern legal and political thought by showing the theological roots of modern juridico-political concepts and structures.

By replacing “theory of the state” with “biology” in the epigraph, I displaced Schmitt’s model of structural filiation from its intended field to suggest that an analogous relation of derivation may be construed between theological speculation and modern scientific theories.3 Following this logic, the relation would need to be defined according to the specific paths of the various scientific disciplines. For example, while narratives of modern physical enquiries make their Galilean foundation coincide with the rejection of the Aristotelian theoretical framework as endorsed by Scholastic theologians, the study of the living has long carried Aristotelian and Scholastic themes through modernities.

However, even a sketch of the modern development of ideas on the nature of the living would obviously require much more than a single essay. In order to show the theological and, more generally, metaphysical presuppositions within modern discourses on the living, I will have to replace the proper path of genealogical constructions with the powerful shortcut of another kind of narration. In the Schmittian marauding spirit of my previous misquotation, I will shamelessly plunder a short story written in the late 1940s by Jorge Luis Borges: La escritura del dios, “The writing of the god.”4

“The writing of the god” brilliantly conjoins brevity and polysemic abundance. Despite its Mesoamerican setting, references to Buddhism proliferate in the accounts of its numerous interpreters. Borges himself recalls a more personal source, namely, his memories of delirium and pain in a hospital bed. The narration may appear to distil this experience of suffering and despair into a superior spiritual achievement: nevertheless, the final outcome may be read in a completely different, and indeed, opposite way. In order to explore this alternative reading, I will inflict upon the prose of Borges, which already consists of only that which is essential, the violence of a summary.

“The writing of the god”

After the Spanish invasion of the Yucatán, the Mayan high priest Tzinacán lies helplessly in the darkness on the floor of a huge prison of stone, which he has been sharing with a jaguar for many years.5 A high wall separates the two prisoners, but once a day, when their jailer lifts a manhole on the ceiling to lower their meal, they can see each other through a gated window.6 Tzinacán fills days and years with his memories: “thus—he tells us—I was taking possession of what was already my own” (596).7 He then slowly comes to recall a religious prophecy: on the day of creation, Qaholom, the god of his pyramid, writes a magical sentence, which would give its chosen decipherer unlimited power to face and repel the evils to come at the end of time. At that point, the motionless prisoner sets off on a quest for the written spell.

In his inner journey, the Mayan priest seems to retrace the path of ancient Greek sages, who look for ontological stability in cosmological features and their material components. He is also struck by the same Platonic and Aristotelian insight that the only persistence in a world of becoming is in the incessant repetition of the cycle of life.8 From there, Tzinacán has only to recall that the jaguar is one of the attributes of the god, so that he may at last focus on the fur of the beast as the constantly renewed palimpsest of the divine writing: “I imagined that network of tigers, that hot labyrinth of tigers, spreading horror through meadows and herds in order to preserve a drawing” (597).9

Though the search of Tzinacán now has a narrower focus, it is no less demanding, as the prisoner himself dryly recounts: “I devoted many years to learning the order and the configuration of the fur spots” (597).10 He also speculates at length on the form of the divine communication, and considering that any human proposition already entails the entire universe,11 he comes to the conclusion that the god needs no more than a single word to deliver his message.

One day—or one night, he cannot say—Tzinacán gets frightened by a dream in which his only escape from suffocation is to wake up within another analogous dream, and so on, in an endless series. When the arrival of the jailer brings him back to the reality of the prison, Tzinacán wholeheartedly embraces his condition as prisoner; in that very moment, he experiences union with the deity.12

While cautioning that his experience is neither forgettable nor communicable, Tzinacán depicts his sudden vision of the Whole as “a most high Wheel” (598),13 which includes “all things which will be, which are and which have been” (599).14 As a consequence, he also understands at once the writing of the god: “It is a formula of fourteen casual words (which seem casual),—Tzinacán explains—and it would be enough for me to say it out aloud for being almighty” (599).15

The prisoner’s reaction to the epiphany is even more extraordinary than his discovery and his decipherment of the divine code: he does nothing, and he explains that whoever has seen the designs of the universe—as he did—is no longer interested in any specific issue or entity, even if the entity at stake is himself. As he now identifies himself with the universe, he no longer cares about the man Tzinacán, who just has been himself, and who is no longer himself, but another.16

Absolutes Exposed

The conclusion of the story may be understood as an expression of mysticism on the part of Borges: nevertheless, two important motivations militate against such a reading. On the one hand, the identification of a literary character with its author is risky, even reckless in the case of Borges. On the other hand, we may consider this story within a series of Borgesian parables on the absolute and its attributes: Borges shows Tzinacán’s power, Menard’s repetition, Funes’s memory, and Cartaphilus’s immortality as features of the absolute that are useless or even humanly unbearable.17

In other words, Borges provides us with a scorching treatment of absolute ideas, which are exposed through his narrative reductio ad absurdum. This rhetorical technique operates first by accepting the point to be disproved, and then by showing that the consequences of the accepted point are untenable. The method cannot be directly applied to transcendent notions, which by definition exceed their immanent actualization. Yet, Borges bypasses this impossibility by producing the narrative actualization of core concepts of Western metaphysics, from immortality to infinity, and from unlimited knowledge to unlimited memory.

Once actualized in the fictional world of the story, absolute notions produce consequences that are at odds with any possible expectation grounded in experience. This is why Borges shows the disinvestment of the enlightened Mayan prisoner in his human embodiment: the prisoner’s very enlightened condition, that is, his new identification with that which “the poor and ambitious human words” name as “all, world, universe,”18 is no longer compatible with his previous human identification as Tzinacán. By showing this irreversible bifurcation to his readers, Borges sets up a deictic (or ostensive)19 rather than demonstrative argument about the incompatibility between absoluteness and humanity: the absolute dimension, in its various facets, here appears as properly inhuman. If this holds true, absoluteness is probably also laid bare in Borges’s narration of Tzinacán’s belief—which Plato and Aristotle also share—that living entities partake of the everlasting by reproducing themselves.20

Permanence and Repetition

In the Western world, Aristotelian participation in an eternal iteration later becomes sidelined by the concern with individual self-preservation: a concern that is raised by the Stoics and that is later embraced by medieval and modern thinkers, from Aquinas to Hobbes and beyond. However, the postulate of the immutability of species remains nearly undisturbed until 1859 (ninety years before the publication of Borges’s story), when it is shaken by another narration: Darwin gets straight to the point by titling his work On the Origins of Species. Once Darwin establishes the evolution of species, it is no longer possible to imagine that they populate the very “first morning of time,”21 or that they are conceived as ideas in the mind of the creator.22

Yet, because absoluteness—or objectivity—lies in the eye of the beholder, nowadays we still need to “watch out for amateur and amateurish philosophers trying to stuff archetypes into the genome” (Ghiselin 260). Worse than that, a more subtle longing for permanence seems to renew Aristotle’s attempt to rescue mutable entities as proper objects of knowledge by highlighting their belonging to iterating cycles.

Aristotle recovers permanence in the supposedly endless iteration of the reproductive cycle, on which he thus bestows the ontological stability of being: moreover, the biological reproductive cycle is possibly the model for the Aristotelian notion of ousia,23 which the Scholastics translate as “substance,” and which can be rendered as “being-something.”24 In contrast, after Darwin, the cycles of reproduction in the realm of the living instead either go helicing25 or are erratically punctuated.26 According to these interpretations of Darwinian evolution, the cycle of reproduction is modified (perhaps but not necessarily continuously) by variations, and it is even occasionally disrupted by the absolute singularity of mutations. Hence it is no longer the result of uninterrupted iteration, but iterability itself and its conditions of possibility that now lay their claim to permanency.

In other words, after Darwin, jaguars can no longer be examined as a source of timeless revelations,27 as supposed by both Aristotle and Tzinacán (albeit for different motivations28): nowadays, our visibly beautiful felines are instead searched for the invisible beauty of their biological functions.29 These hidden functions can resurface as the mechanisms that supposedly order an immediately visible feature, such as animal fur patterns.

Mathematical Decipherments

It is in the second half of the twentieth century that the mechanisms of biological pigmentation patterns are first construed by mathematical means. This construction takes two different paths. In his 1950 paper (published in 1952), “Random Processes and Transformations,” Stanislaw Ulam mentions a theory of automata, namely, a mathematical tessellation30 model, whose elements are governed by the same general rules (274). In the paper, Ulam cites as a source John von Neumann and the lectures he gave in 1949 (the year of publication of Borges’s story). Von Neumann considers cellular automata as simplified simulations of self-reproductive biological systems; Stephen Wolfram (A New Kind 876) recalls that von Neumann seems to attempt to compensate for the structural simplicity of his 1952 cellular automaton by endowing the model with a remarkable (200,000) number of cells, each of which is also attributed twenty-nine possible states.

In the same year, on the other side of the Atlantic, Alan Turing proposes a chemical interpretation of morphogenesis, which he supports with a mathematical model of differential equations: in particular, according to Turing, the diffusion of chemicals in the embryo might also account for fur colour patterns. In the 1970s, John Murray recovers Turing’s patterns in order to claim that the single mechanism of diffusion is responsible for the geometry of animal coat design (144).

Around this time, Edward Fredkin proposes to generalize cellular automata as representations of space and time, both of which he constructs as discrete rather than continuous. Richard Feynman, too, begins to consider “the idea that space perhaps is a simple lattice and everything is discrete … and that time jumps discontinuously” (468). However, in the 1980s, when Wolfram redefines cellular automata,31 he adds to discretization a new understanding of the relation between simplicity and complexity.

Wolfram shows that cellular automata operating by very simple rules display complex behaviour, and he suggests that biological pigmentation patterns, like patterns produced by cellular automata, are “generated by processes whose basic rules are extremely simple” (A New Kind 423).


In light of scientific research, we may reconsider Tzinacán’s painstaking effort to decipher the message left by his god on the jaguar’s skin. The solitary endeavour of the Mayan prisoner translates into the field of natural sciences the concerns that Abrahamic interpreters direct to the more literal writing of their god(s).32 Within these religious traditions, however, the text of the book of nature is hardly granted equal standing to that of sacred books. A notable early exception is Eriugena, who, in the ninth century, properly sets nature and scripture on equal footing as biforme calceamentum, that is, the two-form shoe of Jesus (307).

However, like Jewish, Christian, and Islamic enquiries on the supposedly literal writing of god, Tzinacán’s zoological observations are oriented, as Derrida would put it, by an outside-text beacon.33 While the outside-text-ness of monotheist and Mayan gods is immediately revealed by their claim to transcendence, Derrida points out that outside-textness is also presupposed by apparently more modest decipherments, such as, for example, the (Rousseauan and Saussurean) analysis of language and the (Lévi-Straussian) search for anthropological structures. The very notion of grammatology as a traditional scientific discipline has to be discarded because it partakes of these “metaphysical presuppositions” (Positions 36).

If this holds true, we may compare Tzinacán’s fictional endeavour with another contemporary enquiry, which is recalled by Lévi-Strauss. In sixteenth-century Puerto Rico, some of the mysterious newcomers (Spanish colonial invaders) are kept underwater for weeks, in order to determine whether their corpses would rot like those of ordinary living beings. Lévi-Strauss matches the Amerindian experiments on Spanish bodies with the contemporary Spanish theological search for Amerindian souls, and he famously quips: “The whites invoked the social sciences, whilst the Indians were rather more confident with the natural sciences” (81).34

Apparently, unlike his Puerto Rican fellows, the Mayan priest only deploys the observation method of the natural sciences in order to achieve his supernatural task. His faith in the presence of the hidden message of the god is not too far from modern science’s belief in the laws of nature, even if these laws are understood as regularities that underlie a variety of natural phenomena.

Of course, one may observe that the script of the Mayan god is an intentional communication by a personal entity.35 However, even in the nineteenth century, non-Darwinian researchers in the newly defined science of biology,36 such as Agassiz and Owen, relate the notion of species to a similar personal entity, and it would not be difficult to argue that the mind of god has currency as a metaphor (and often also literally) for many of our contemporary physicists and biologists.

More than that, the belief in an objective natural settlement (albeit transient) cuts across the boundary between transcendence and immanence: this belief may also survive the reframing of the biological order as a dynamical set of emergent properties. Even the commendable attempt to correlate such order to the intervention of the researcher may end up recasting the previous objective order of things as the result of subjective operations.37


We may consider Humberto Maturana’s parable of the house builders, in which he compares the cognitive behaviour of two teams of workers (Maturana and Varela, Autopoiesis 53).38 One of the members of the first group is appointed leader, and he is also granted a detailed building plan by a providential architect (who would have surely pleased a long list of thinkers, from Aristotle to Descartes to Marx). The second group somewhat embodies Jakob von Uexküll’s “reflex republic” (76) as each member is given, like a sea urchin’s quill,39 the same “neighbourhood instructions”40 (Maturana and Varela, Autopoiesis 53): even more impressive is the similarity between the working conditions of the members of the second team and the operating conditions of the elements of a cellular automaton.41

According to Maturana, while both teams end up building a house, only the first house building process is isomorphic to a description from the perspective of an external observer; in contrast, there is no isomorphism between this external description and the second process, which “corresponds to the way that the genome and nervous system constitute codes for the organism and for behaviour” (Maturana and Varela, Autopoiesis 54).

We may certainly welcome Maturana’s acknowledgement that the perspective of the external observer imposes on the biological material the teleological convergence of the plan (the house project with architectural sketches42) as the result of the observer’s post festum cognition of the realized house. Maturana is also ready to admit that this very house is not the object of knowledge of the observer, because, in general, “there is no object of knowledge. To know is to be able to operate adequately in an individual or cooperative situation” (Maturana and Varela, Autopoesis 53).

Maturana and Varela themselves operate as theorists by constructing “the living being as a self-referential system of circular organization”43—better known as autopoiesis44—that frees the living from its subordination to the teleological plan. Nevertheless, their construction de facto also internalizes within the living individual the cyclical logic of reproduction that defines the unity and the closure of the species. This inner reproduction is understood as both the process of structural change (the ontogenesis) and the unchanging inner organization that grants the survival of the individual.

We may compare the autopoietic organism with Plutarch’s account of Theseus’s ship, which was rebuilt piece by piece over time, causing one to wonder whether it was still the same boat:45 the growth and the decay of the living add to the ship’s structural replacements structural transformations too. According to Maturana and Varela, these structural transformations must take place in a manner determined by and subordinated to the organization of the living individual: moreover, for them, the organizational closure of self-reproduction—autopoiesis—is the very defining character of the living in general.

Maturana and Varela do not immediately identify biological systems and their descriptions. It is the gesture of the observer that enacts a distinction between the background and the autopoietic entity, which is thus constituted as separated and one. Here, the eternal closure of the Aristotelian species is replaced by the time-bound closure of individual biological organization, and this very temporary closure results from the subjective operation of distinction. Following Spencer-Brown’s idea that “a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart” (Spencer-Brown v), Maturana and Varela even affirm that distinction is the generative operation of any universe.

We may observe mutatis mutandis that the Aristotelian knot that ties unity and identity together46 still structures the language of being, which modern science inherits from the Classics through the historical mediation of theology. Of course, the principle of unity no longer resides in the immutable species’ teleological plan, which is to be realized as the ontogenetic potentiality of the individual living entity. On the contrary, according to Maturana and Varela, the relations that determine the dynamics of interactions and transformations of the living entity constitute its organization, which defines it as a unity. Moreover, after the Kantian critical gesture, which salvages metaphysical objectivity by relocating it from the outer world to the inner transcendental conditions of possibility of human knowledge, this organization can no longer be construed as a mere objective feature of the living. Yet, by declaring that “[t]he description, invention and manipulation of unities is at the base of all scientific inquiry” (Autopoiesis 73), Maturana and Varela seem to recast Aristotelian unity under the shape of the subjective operation of distinction.

Otherwise than Closure

These considerations take us very far from the Mexican jail and its prisoner, but Tzinacán too is caught between mutually exclusive alternatives: he can identify with either the stubborn autopoiesis of his strained human body or the whole universe (which, as we saw in his sudden epiphany, he perceives as a gigantic and all-encompassing wheel). In other words, his embracing of the totality requires him to renounce the distinction that produces the numerical unity of his individual body.

As a proud member of a priestly cast in a literate society, the Mayan Tzinacán can rightly claim to have long ago left behind prehistory and its primitive mentality. Hence, at least according to Lucien Lévy-Bruhl,47 he has to endure the burden of civilization, which no longer allows him to participate in the identity of more than one entity.

Nevertheless, pace Lévy-Bruhl, inasmuch as we begin to identify the burden of civilization as another avatar of Platonic narrations, we need not to follow Tzinacán’s bifurcating path. We may question the unity (and the operational closure) of both the individual and the whole, and we may even detect a will to closure48 still at work in the repeated attempt to define concepts—such as, for example, the living. And what if we at last abandon the endeavour of defining the living and rather focus on the living as part of the cultural processes that recast—and are still recasting—ontotheology as physiology?49

Riccardo Baldissone
University of Westminster, London
Riccardo Baldissone

Riccardo Baldissone is Fellow at the University of Westminster, London. He is committed to a genealogical construction of Western texts that links the process of production of the logic of identity in classical ontology with the medieval emergence of conceptual discourse and the transformations of modern naturalism, in a project to overcome the double straitjacket of entities and representations. His most recent publication is Farewell to Freedom: A Western Genealogy of Liberty (University of Westminster Press, 2018). He is completing a genealogical account of Western processes of individuation, Autós, which will be in print in 2019 from Rowman & Littlefield.


1. Mutations do not alter causality, but they are exceptions to ordered replication. Consider Malebranche’s discussion of how volontez particulieres (god’s particular volitions) occasionally modify the general laws of nature, the volontez generales (god’s general volitions) (32), in order to produce miracles.

2. Here is George Schwab’s translation of Schmitt’s original text: “All significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts not only because of their historical development—in which they were transferred from theology to the theory of the state, whereby, for example, the omnipotent God became the omnipotent lawgiver—but also because of their systematic structure, the recognition of which is necessary for a sociological consideration of these concepts. The exception in jurisprudence is analogous to the miracle in theology. Only by being aware of this analogy can we appreciate the manner in which the philosophical ideas of the state developed in the last centuries” (Schmitt 36).

3. In the same essay Schmitt himself detects Malebranche’s emphasis on volontez generales, the laws of nature that express the general wills of god, as the horizon of the scientific study of nature as a self-sufficient mechanism.

4. The story was first published on February 1949 in the Argentinian magazine Sur, and was then reprinted in the collection El Aleph. Translations of Borges and other texts are mine unless otherwise noted.

5. Borges may have been familiar with Popol Vuh, which is the most relevant among the Mayan texts that survived the colonial holocaust. In the book, the third trial that the main characters face in the underworld is entering b'alami ja, jaguar house, which is “crowded with jaguars” (line 4019).

6. In The Songlines, Bruce Chatwin recalls a visit to a Shaivite sadhu in his Indian den, and he adds an Edenic version of the Borgesian regular exchange of eye views: “Below the hermitage there was a leopard cave. On moonlit nights the leopard would come into the garden, and he and the sadhu would look at each other” (257).

7. “[A]sí fui entrando en posesión de lo que ya era mío.”

8.La montaña y la estrella son individuos, y los individuos caducan. Busqué algo más tenaz, más invulnerable. Pensé en las generaciones de los cereales, de los pastos, de los pájaros, de los hombres” (597). “The mountain and the star are individuals, and individuals die out. I looked for something more tenacious, more invulnerable. I thought about the generations of cereals, of pastures, of birds, of men.”

9.Imaginé esa red de tigres, ese caliente laberinto de tigres, dando horror a los prados y a los rebaños para conservar un dibujo.”

10.Dediqué largos años a aprender el orden y la configuración de las manchas.”

11.Consideré que aun en los lenguajes humanos no hay proposición que no implique el universo entero” (598). “I considered that also in human languages there is no proposition that does not imply the entire universe.”

12.Ocurrió la unión con la divinidad, con el universo (no sé si estas palabras difieren)” (598). “It occurred the union with the deity, with the universe (I don’t know if these words differ).” We cannot ignore that Tzinacán’s epiphany of the totality overlaps with his blessing espousal of the here and now, inasmuch as alternative (however awful) to the intolerable dimension of dream: “Del incansable laberinto de sueños yo regresé como a mi casa a la dura prisión. Bendije su humedad, bendije su tigre, bendije el agujero de luz, bendije mi viejo cuerpo doliente, bendije la tiniebla y la piedra” (598). “From the indefatigable labyrinth of dreams, I returned as if to my home to the harsh prison. I blessed its dampness, I blessed its tiger, I blessed the crevice of light, I blessed my painful old body, I blessed the darkness and the stone.”

13. “[U]na Rueda altísima.” A most appropriate objective correlative to the Whole as a recurring cycle.

14. “[T]odas las cosas que serán, que son y que fueron.”

15.Es una fórmula de catorce palabras casuales (que parecen casuales), y me bastaría decirla en voz alta para ser todopoderoso.”

16.Quien ha entrevisto el universo, quien ha entrevisto los ardientes designios del universo, no puede pensar en un hombre, en sus triviales dichas o desventuras, aunque ese hombre sea él. Ese hombre ha sido él y ahora no le importa. Qué le importa la suerte de aquel otro, qué le importa la nación de aquel otro, si él, ahora es nadie.” “Whoever glimpsed the universe, whoever glimpsed the fiery designs of the universe, cannot think about a man, about his trivial sayings or misfortunes, even if that man is himself. That man has been him and now he does no longer care. What is the fate of that other to him, what is the nation of that other to him, if now he is nobody.” There is an uncanny similarity between this and the epilogue of Dino Buzzati’s short story L’uomo che volle guarire (“The Man who Wanted to Heal”), first published on July 29, 1952 in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

17. See Pierre Menard, autor del Quijote (440–450); Funes el memorioso (485–490); El inmortal (533–544) in Borges, Obras Completas.

18. “[L]as ambiciosas y pobres voces humanas, todo, mundo, universo” (598).

19. The two terms relate to the verbs δείκνυμι [deiknymi] and ostendere respectively, which both use to express the sense of “displaying,” long before this sense is hijacked by Plato and the geometers under the notion of demonstration as a compelling vision (the Platonic gesture includes the shift of sense of the derived term παράδειγμα [paradeigma] from “model as an example” to “model as a prototype”). We are still hostages to this gesture, and to its repetition by Hobbes and his fellow seventeenth-century natural philosophers.

20. “[L]os jaguares, que se amarían y se engendrarían sin fin” (597). “The jaguars, who would endlessly copulate and reproduce themselves.”

21. Tzinacán tells: “Imaginé la primera mañana del tiempo” (597). “I imagined the first morning of time.”

22. Nineteenth-century naturalists such as Agassiz and Owen still held species as ideas in the mind of god, a notion that may possibly be traced to Philo of Alexandria: “in tracing it [a natural system] the human mind is only translating into human language the Divine thoughts expressed in nature in living realities” (Agassiz 136).

23. Aristotle knows well that οὐσία [ousia] is said in many ways, which include the numerical identity of the individual being (for instance, in Generation of Animals). However, Aristotle also insists that there is a primary sense of the word ousia: in the Categories (3b12) it defines that which is neither part nor predicate of something else, and it is always ἄτομον ... καὶ ἓν ἀριθμῷ [atomon ... kai hen arithmō], “individual ... and one in number”; in the book Zeta of Metaphysics (1043a6), Aristotle defines ousia as τὸ ἀνάλογον ἐν ἑκάστῳ [to analogon en hekastō], “the proportion in each being.”

24. The term ousia is derived from οὖσα [ousa], feminine present participle of the verb εἶναι [einai], to be, that is, being. The Scholastics follow Boethius’s (main) Latin rendering of ousia as substantia, substance: more recently, Düring suggests “existence” as an alternative translation, which is probably reasonable but confusing on the horizon of previous interpretations. Considering that what is at stake is not only the isness of things (rendered by Heidegger as Seiendenheit, “beingness,” and by Sachs as “thinghood”), but also any singular instance of this isness, I would prefer to use the term “being-something.” I deal at length with the notion of ousia in my forthcoming book Autós.

25. I made up this verbal form from the noun “helix” on the model of “spiral” and “spiralling,” as a visual rendering of the continuous variation of species in Neo-Darwinist accounts.

26. “Speciation is a rare and difficult event that punctuates a system in homeostatic equilibrium” (Eldredge and Gould 115).

27. According to Darwin’s theory of descent with modification, “not one living species will transmit its unaltered likeness to a distant futurity” (489).

28. In Borges’s narration (as well as in Popol Vuh, line 19, where the name K’ajolom identifies the god who has begotten sons), Qaholom is a personal entity, unlike Aristotle’s θεός [theos], the divine, which only becomes personalized in Christian, Islamic, and Jewish adaptations of Aristotelian thought.

29. This kind of beauty is first explicitly acknowledged by Aristotle in Parts of Animals 645a6: οὕτω καὶ πρὸς τὴν ζήτησιν περὶ ἑκάστου τῶν ζῴων προσιέναι δεῖ μὴ δυσωπούμενον ὡς ἐν ἅπασιν ὄντος τινὸς φυσικοῦ καὶ καλοῦ [houtō kai pros tēn zētēsin peri hekastou tōn zōōn prosienai dei mē dysōpoumenon hōs en hapasin ontos tinos physikou kai kalou], “so we should approach the study of every kind of animal without distaste; for each and all will reveal to us something natural and something beautiful.”

30. Ulam mentions “an infinite lattice or graph of points,” that is, a regular spatial distribution of discrete elements (274).

31. “Cellular automata are simple mathematical idealizations of natural systems. They consist of a lattice of discrete identical sites, each site taking on a finite set of, say, integer values. The values of the sites evolve in discrete time steps according to deterministic rules that specify the value of each site in terms of the values of neighboring sites. Cellular automata may thus be considered as discrete idealizations of the partial differential equations often used to describe natural systems (“Cellular Automata” 2).”

32. We may construct the birth of modern sciences as a shift of focus from the Christian god’s book of revelation to his book of nature. In Il Saggiatore Galileo explicitly claims the latter image in order to underline another shift, from the language of letters to that of mathematical symbols and figures (25).

33. In De la grammatologie, Derrida famously writes, “[I]l n'y a pas de hors-texte (there is no outside-text) (227).” We may forgive the peremptoriness with which Derrida annihilates the outside-text: thanks to his bold gesture we can now see that the outside-text always comes at a cost, as Latour says of identities, equivalences, and universality in The Pasteurization of France (162). Arguably, the gesture of mere negation is reconsidered by Derrida himself at least under the rubric of the undecidability of the pharmakon, which “is neither the inside nor the outside, … that is, simultaneously either or” (Positions 43).

34. “[L]es blancs invoquaient les sciences sociales alors que les Indiens avaient plutôt confiance dans les sciences naturelles.”

35. “[I]maginé a mi dios confiando el mensaje a la piel viva de los jaguares” (597). “I imagined my god entrusting the message to the living skin of the jaguars.”

36. The word “biology” first appeared in print in its German version, Biologie, in Theodor Georg August Roose’s 1797 Grundzüge der Lehre von der Lebenskraft.

37. In Critique of Pure Reason, Kant set this rhetorical trick as the general model for the modernities to come: universal forms and categories of thought, inasmuch as shared human abilities, shape human knowledge and grant its objectivity.

38. First published in Maturana, Biology of Cognition. I suspect an unwitting resurgence of numerology here, as Maturana unnecessarily specifies that each team is composed of thirteen workers.

39. “Like porcupines, sea urchins have a great number of quills, which are, however, developed into autonomous reflex persons … In the reflex republic of the sea urchin, which has no hierarchically superior center, civil peace … occurs through the presence of a substance called autodermin. Undiluted autodermin blocks the receptors of the reflex persons” (von Uexküll 76–77).

40. As the activity of each worker far exceeds in complexity the quill’s simple reflex, the analogy is limited to the aspect of locality.

41. In their 1974 article “Autopoiesis: The Organization of Living Systems, Its Characterization and a Model,” Varela, Maturana, and Uribe make use of a cellular automaton.

42. We may notice that the word παραδείγματα [paradeigmata], or “examples,” and, after Plato, “prototypes,” first appears in Herodotus to define three-dimensional models (2.86) and—in the singular—an architectural sketch (5.62) respectively. We cannot exactly date Sophocles’s roughly contemporary play Ichneutae, where paradeigmata (line 72) qualify three-dimensional objects too.

43. “[S]er vivo como sistema de organización circular.” (De Máquinas y Seres Vivos 16).

44. Maturana recalls that his coin “autopoiesis” took shape “while talking with a friend (José Bulnes) about an essay of his on Don Quixote de la Mancha, in which he analyzed Don Quixote's dilemma of whether to follow the path of arms (praxis, action) or the path of letters (poiesis, creation, production)” (Maturana and Varela, Autopoiesis xvii). Of course, Bulnes’s reading of Cervantes partially recovers the Aristotelian tripartition of human activities into theoria (contemplation), praxis (nonproductive activity), and poiesis (productive activity). See Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics.

45. Plutarch, Theseus 23.1.

46. See especially the book Iota of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

47. Lévy-Bruhl asserts that primitive mentality implies a “mystical participation” (80), that is, the ability to be “at once themselves and something other than themselves” (76).

48.Distinction is perfect continence” (Spencer-Brown 1), original italics. I discuss an alternative construction that emphasizes in-between-ness and through-ness in my book Farewell to Freedom.

49. I have suggested elsewhere the term “onto-theo-physio-logy,” as an alternative to Heidegger’s dehistoricized construction of Western thought as the bipolar disorder of ontotheology. The notion of ontotheophysiology genealogically summarizes the classical, medieval, and modern path of metaphysics as a (Derridean) series of substitutions of center for center: being, god, and nature, that is, φύσις [physis].

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