Oh! What poiesis taught me about auto-poiesis
Posted January 4, 2010on:
I learned something very interesting just now. The Greek word for poetry is poiesis – ‘making’.
That wouldn’t have been too dramatic a discovery but management theorists are fond of the word auto-poesis.
Autopoiesis literally means “auto (self)-creation” (from the Greek: auto – αυτό for self- and poiesis – ποίησις for creation or production), and expresses a fundamental dialectic between structure and function.
We like this word in management because it expresses the constant interplay between our relationships with the world and ourselves.
Autopoiesis vs allopiesis
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).
Management theory in the 21st century
Much of the management theory I grew up with was about allopoietic systems. How do we turn inputs into something that we will send out or away? X and Y.
Indeed, even allowing for the transformation of X into Y is somewhat of a novelty for a psychologist. To have a feedback loop from Y to X is so challenging that the loop mysteriously disappears from some text books!
When we think of ourselves as autopoietic, we allow that “if organization of a thing changes, the thing changes.” Here we are saying that every time a bolt and a washer, or indeed anything enters a factory, or a car leaves a factory, the factory itself has changed.
We are less concerned with what goes in and what goes out and more concerned with way the factory reinvents itself minute-by-minute.
An example of an autopoietic system
It’s a bit giddy-making when we switch from one idea to the other.
For the research minded
It is easier for research, stats-minded people to see the idea when they think of Losada’s work on the maths of happiness. Happiness is made up of three things yet any one these is not happiness, or even the beginning of happiness. The three things are a positivity/negativity ratio of around 5 to 1, slightly more curiosity than advocacy, and slightly more interest in the outside world than ourselves. We don’t add up these three variables. Rather, they “feed” off each other. At any one time their coordinates (x,y,z) can be anywhere in a 3D space shaped like a 3D butterfly.
Happiness means we have a big plump space and the coordinates swoop around. Unhappiness means they have a repetitive circle or limited space. Here we see the dialectic between structure and function.
We are healthy when we are constantly regenerating ourselves in response to the world around us and what we were a minute ago.
We become ill when we don’t look after who we were one minute ago (right now in other words) and we don’t attend to what is going on around us. We are ill when our head is anywhere except here and now.
There is room for day dreaming, planning and reminiscing. But as the icing on the cake. Devoting space to what we are not is not healthy. A healthy mind is asking what is going on now and celebrating what is rather than what is not.
For the non-research minded
For the non-research minded, lets think of a cake made of flour, eggs and sugar. We can vary the proportions, or at least good a baker can, and by varying proportions we get a good range of delicious cakes. To have one type of cake all the time is boring. Happiness, in this analogy, is a wide variety of cakes from plain biscuits to luscious forest cakes. We have a plain biscuit today and we feel like a rich cake tomorrow, and vice versa.
Life becomes grim when the recipe never changes or we try to swap eggs for something else (like potatoes). We need constant variety within broad rules.
We need to enjoy each cake for what it is. A dry biscuit is that. It is not chocolate cake. It never will be.
We also need to bake the cake. Happiness is the cake. Not a line of eggs, sugar and flour on the kitchen table. It is a baked cake. It is the product of interacting parts mixed sensibly.
I didn’t know that poetry means making. Auto-poiesis is the poetry of ourselves. The constant interplay between structure (me) and function (the world).