Wednesday, August 31, 2011

"Where is Self, and what is it?" No, it's rather "How is Self?": Luhmann's theory of autopoiesis

1 Space metaphor of in-between-ness

"In-between-ness" is one of the terms I learned in The 16th World Congress of Applied Linguistics(AILA 2011, Beijing), in particular from the presentation by Angela Scarino and Jonathan Crichton, "In-between-ness" in the experience of language learning. The describes where an L2 learner finds herself, away from the identity created by her native language (L1) or from another identity created by her target language (L2) .

Although I agreed with the presenters on substantial arguments, I was not perfectly happy with the term "in-between-ness" because it is a space metaphor that doesn't say much about the qualitative change (or "transformation," to borrow an expression by Gadamer quoted by the presenters).

Literally, something "in between" is located between two things, A and B, and that's what the expression is all about. The expression doesn't say anything about some possible transformation which that something, say, C, has gone through.

However, it is most likely that C, an L2 learner has been changed by being "in-between" L1 and L2. She is no longer what she was when she only knew her L1; nor is she what she is trying to be like (i.e., the native speaker of her target language, who is not usually assumed to know her L1, at least according to the monolingual mindset in language learning). She is no longer her old self, or the new self, which she can never be. She is "in-between," but, more importantly, she is being transformed. To describe the identity of an L2 learner, I prefer to use a description that connotes qualitative changes.

2 Compound metaphor of H2O

So I raised a hand in the Q&A session of the presentation above and suggested a compound metaphor of H2O. As a compound (or composite), H2O exhibits unique features that its original elements, two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, never show when they are separated. The composite, not just an aggregate but a new creation, has gone through qualitative transformation.

This compound metaphor is probably a better description of the identity of an L2 learner. I had the idea of this metaphor from the definition of "plurilingual and pluricultural competence" in Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (CEFR).

Plurilingual and pluricultural competence refers to the ability to use languages for the purposes of communication and to take part in intercultural interaction, where a person, viewed as a social agent has proficiency, of varying degrees, in several languages and experience of several cultures. This is not seen as the superposition or juxtaposition of distinct competences, but rather as the existence of a complex or even composite competence on which the user may draw. (Council of Europe 2001, p. 168)

The idea of plurilingual and pluricultural competence does not describe an L2 learner as something that consists of two blocks (L1 part and L2 part). She is not just a sum of distinct two units. Rather, she is something new, like H2O that is no longer hydrogen or oxygen. She has a new identity as H2O that is different from the old L1 identity (say, hydrogen) or the target L2 identity (say, oxygen). In addition, this compound metaphor is better protected than the space metaphor against the wrong idea of L2 learner going from the old L1 self to the new L2 self, as some old view of "interlanguage" may have led us to believe. This is why I suggested the compound metaphor as a better description than the space metaphor, "in-between-ness."

3 From an entity (WHAT) to an operation (HOW)

However, I was not exactly happy with the compound metaphor, either, because it gives an impression that an identity is an entity: the old L1 self being a hydrogen atom, the target L2 self an oxygen atom, and the identity as an L2 learner a compound of H2O. As an entity, the hydrogen atom, the oxygen atom or the H2O compound (molecule), is fixed and stable. However, I see an L2 learner, myself included, as a more dynamic and changing being. In addition, a compound can be separated again by some chemical reaction into its original elements; H2O can be separated into two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. Yet, an L2 learner will never be back to the old L1 self; once a learner learns an L2, the change is mostly irreversible. Therefore, the compound metaphor is not a perfect description, either.

As I recall my L2 learning experience, I believe I was not even aware of the L1 (Japanese) self when I didn't begin to learn an L2 (English). It was only after I began to learn and use English that I began to feel that I am not like the target self (a native speaker of English) or, more importantly here, the old self with no influence of English that I only then gathered must have been. The point is that both the new self (the target self as a native speaker of English) and the old self (the "original" self as a monolingual speaker of Japanese) emerged at the same time. When the other language (English) was not present, I never thought I was "original": I didn't bother to think about my identity. (I could have thought about other identities, like one as a junior high school student, not a primary school kid, or one as a radio listener in his own room alone, not as a TV viewer in a living room with his parents. But I didn't think about my Japanese identity until I started to learn and use English).

So I was not a stable hydrogen atom. I began to think I must have been a hydrogen atom only as I tried to be like an oxygen atom and found that I was not an oxygen atom or a hydrogen atom but something different, H2O. Furthermore, I was not or am still not a stable H2O. My sense of identity changes as I live. It even changes as I change my perspective. It is not stable or fixed as an entity.

We should probably cease to see an identity as an entity. It is rather how we see ourselves. Identity is always in an operation. Identity is a temporary result of identity sense-making. Identity is constructed when I find something that doesn't seem like myself: "I am not that." But the point I've been trying to make is that 'I' am not also that which does not contain 'that' (the original, uncontaminated 'I'). 'I' am what finds itself not 'that'. I am the totality of the operation of this sense making. And it is here that I should introduce Luhmann's theory of autopoiesis.

4 Luhmann's theory of autopoiesis

For Luhmann, self-reference is critical in an autopoiesis system, a system that constantly organizes and produces itself. Self emerges with self-reference; Self did not exist before self-reference. When I, as an example of a psychic system (translate this into a "consciousness system" if you like), find something, I also find something else that finds that something. The first something is the other and the second something is myself. The other is something that is clearly not me (the psychic / consciousness system); The other is part of my "environment" (i.e. something that is not a system itself, another technical term by Luhmann). When I find the other, I sense the difference between me (system) and non-me (environment). But we don't stop here; human beings as we are not just make the distinction between system and environment but also "know" that we make the distinction. So there are "me" that makes the first distinction between non-me and me and "I" that makes the second distinction between me and myself. This is the self-reference that we constantly operate.

Hans-Georg Moeller, the author of an excellent introduction to Luhman's theory, Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems, explains as follows:

By making sense, sense-processing systems like psychic and communication systems distinguish between themselves and the world they are in -- they distinguish between system and environment. And this distinction is somehow “reflected” within the system itself. Sense-making systems make sense by making sense of the difference between themselves and their environment, by making sense of the difference between the “it” that makes sense and this “I” that makes that sense. By making this distinction the sense-making system performs a re-entry. It re-enters the distinction it just made. The system not only makes sense by introducing the distinction between itself and its environment, it also “reflects” on this distinction by reintroducing the distinction into itself. It can also make sense of it-self: the self becomes an it and a self! The system can make sense of making sense -- in other words, it can “know” or ascribe to itself (as to one side of the initial distinction) the making of that distinction. First, a system can observe an environment and make sense of it by producing the distinction between system and environment. Then, secondly, it can also perform a re-entry by relating that distinction to itself and, so to speak, be self-referential in the way it used to be other-referential. It can refer to “it-self” just as it used to refer to something else.

Moeller, Hans-Georg (2011). Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems (Ideas Explained) (pp. 67-68). Open Court. Kindle Edition.

The act (or "operation" as Luhmann calls it) of observing makes distinction not just between the observed (the other) and the unobserved (me) but also between the unobserved (me) and the observer (I). The whole operation of observing that involves the other, me, and I produces Self. I am me that is not the other but myself which is a reflected me.

The operation of observation not only distinguishes the observed from the unobserved, it also distinguishes the observed from the observer. Through continuous operations of observation, a system constructs what it observes -- and it constructs itself as an observation system.

Moeller, Hans-Georg (2011). Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems (Ideas Explained) (p. 69). Open Court. Kindle Edition.

Here we may introduce a deliberately ambiguous term of "observing system": the operation of observing a system and a system that does that observing operation. As an observer, I am not a stable entity that objectively observes another distinct entity. Observation makes three things: the observed, the unobserved and the observer. The observed does not become reality independent of the unobserved. They become reality with the observing operation. But the distinction between the observed and the unobserved produces another aspect of reality; As the observing operation (the first observation between the observed and the unobserved) is observed (in the second-order observation of the first observation), something distinct from the observed or the unobserved emerges, which is the observer. And this is, to repeat, the birth of Self, a self-referential system with its environment. A self-referential system that organizes and produces itself is an autopoiesis system, and it requires the theory of second-order observation, second-order cybernetics.

Observation loses its simplicity -- an observer can no longer observe reality without taking into account its very observation as a generating element of reality. A constructivist view of reality directs the attention of observation to the observation, so that the observation of reality becomes an observation of the observation of reality. It becomes second-order observation -- and the theory of second-order observation is called second-order cybernetics.

Moeller, Hans-Georg (2011). Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems (Ideas Explained) (p. 71). Open Court. Kindle Edition.

5 Identity explained

But what's the point of such a complicated theory? Do we obtain anything at all from this philosophical argument? I believe it does, so let's go back to the issue of the identity of an L2 learner.

The "identity" in the sense we're discussing is "the condition of being oneself or itself, and not another" (the second meaning of identity according to based on the Random House Dictionary).

The "condition of being oneself" is not simple or stable; it depends upon its observation of something else, which produces the second-order observation. I am able to be myself when non-me, the observed, is observed by me, the unobserved that becomes myself when that first-order observation is observed in a second-order observation by I, the observer. In order to be sure about my identity, I need the other (non-me) to observe first, and the observation of that observation to find both I and myself.

"Subject" is another philosophical term for Self: "that which thinks or feels as opposed to the object of thinking and feeling; the self or the mind" ((the 7th meaning of subject according to based on Collins English Dictionary). According to Luhmann, subject, hence Self, emerges in an operation of self-reference. It has no foundation other than its operation. It is not an entity on its own. It's always in its own making.

The term “subject” does not designate a substance that, by its pure being, shoulders everything else, the subject is rather self-referentiality itself as the foundation of cognition and action. (1997a, 868)

Translated by Moeller, Hans-Georg (2011). Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems (Ideas Explained) (p. 170). Open Court. Kindle Edition.

Als Subjekt bezeichnet man nicht eine Substanz, die durch ihr bloßes Sein alles andere trägt, sondern Subjekt ist die Selfstreferenz selbst als Grundlage von Erkennen und Handeln.

The original in Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft.

So, identity (I find myself) is constructed when you observe something that you regard as non-you (the other). Your identity changes with your observation. What you observe and how you observe it produces a different identity. You can be different you-s in the plural. But the multiple identities still make one you because they are observed by yourself self-referentially. As an autopoiesis system, whatever you do and however you do it will not change you into non-you. You are always re-organized and re-produced anew as yourself.

If identity is to be regarded like this, it is no wonder that a space metaphor or a compound metaphor is less than perfect. Ask not where Self is or what it is, for it is not an entity; Ask how Self is being constructed in autopoiesis.

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