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Autopoiesis (from Greek αὐτo- (auto-), meaning "self", and ποίησις (poiesis), meaning "creation, production") literally means "self-creation" and expresses a fundamental dialectic among structure, mechanism and function. The term was introduced in 1972 by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela:
An autopoietic machine is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network.
[...] the space defined by an autopoietic system is self-contained and cannot be described by using dimensions that define another space. When we refer to our interactions with a concrete autopoietic system, however, we project this system on the space of our manipulations and make a description of this projection.
Autopoiesis was originally presented as a system description that was said to define and explain the nature of living systems. A canonical example of an autopoietic system is the biological cell. The eukaryotic cell, for example, is made of various biochemical components such as nucleic acids and proteins, and is organized into bounded structures such as the cell nucleus, various organelles, a cell membrane and cytoskeleton. These structures, based on an external flow of molecules and energy, produce the components which, in turn, continue to maintain the organized bounded structure that gives rise to these components.
An autopoietic system is to be contrasted with an allopoietic system, such as a car factory, which uses raw materials (components) to generate a car (an organized structure) which is something other than itself (the factory).
Though others have often used the term as a synonym for self-organization, Maturana himself stated he would "never use the notion of self-organization, because it cannot be the case... it is impossible. That is, if the organization of a thing changes, the thing changes". Moreover, an autopoietic system is autonomous and operationally closed, in the sense that there are sufficient processes within it to maintain the whole. Autopoietic systems are "structurally coupled" with their medium, embedded in a dynamic of changes that can be recalled as sensory-motor coupling. This continuous dynamic is considered as a rudimentary form of knowledge or cognition and can be observed throughout life-forms.
An application of the concept to sociology can be found in Niklas Luhmann's Systems Theory, which was subsequently adapted by Bob Jessop in his studies of the capitalist state system. Marjatta Maula adapted the concept of autopoiesis in a business context. The theory of autopoiesis has also been applied in the context of legal systems by not only Niklas Luhmann, but also Gunther Teubner.
In the context of textual studies, Jerome McGann argues that texts are "autopoietic mechanisms operating as self-generating feedback systems that cannot be separated from those who manipulate and use them". Citing Maturana and Varela, he defines an autopoietic system as "a closed topological space that 'continuously generates and specifies its own organization through its operation as a system of production of its own components, and does this in an endless turnover of components'", concluding that "Autopoietic systems are thus distinguished from allopoietic systems, which are Cartesian and which 'have as the product of their functioning something different from themselves'". Coding and markup appear allopoietic", McGann argues, but are generative parts of the system they serve to maintain, and thus language and print or electronic technology are autopoietic systems.
There are multiple criticisms in relation to the use of the term in both its original context, as an attempt to define and explain the living, and its various expanded usages, such as applying it to self-organizing systems in general or social systems in particular. Critics have argued that the term fails to define or explain living systems and that, because of the extreme language of self-referentiality it uses without any external reference, it is really an attempt to give substantiation to Maturana's radical constructivist or solipsistic epistemology, or what Danilo Zolo has called instead a "desolate theology". An example is the assertion by Maturana and Varela that "what we do not see does not exist" or that reality is an invention of observers. The autopoietic model, said Rod Swenson, is "miraculously decoupled from the physical world by its progenitors [...] (and thus) grounded on a solipsistic foundation that flies in the face of both common sense and scientific knowledge".
However, see Varela, Thompson, & Rosch (1991) The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience for a powerful development of the theory in the context of science, philosophy, and Buddhism. See also the general field of second-order cybernetics which directly pertains to autopoiesis. Stafford Beer in particular both wrote a preface to one of the papers in Maturana & Varela (1980) Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living and develops applications in his own work on cybernetics and the viable system model. There are direct parallels to the concept of the holon (philosophy) and to holonomic brain theory.
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