I was thinking about elderhood and language, how we think of aging and the words we give it and the life that is continually created as we age and those around us age. By using the term language, I mean both the structure or system of language as well as the content and substance of the communication, as well as a means of conveying content and substance. Of course I should define that last term, autopoiesis – It’s not a commonly used word after all:
the property of a living system (such as a bacterial cell or a multicellular organism) that allows it to maintain and renew itself by regulating its composition and conserving its boundaries. The notion of autopoiesis is at the core of a shift in perspective about biological phenomena: it expresses that the mechanisms of self-production are the key to understand both the diversity and the uniqueness of the living. — Francisco J. Varela, in Self-Organizing Systems: An Interdisciplinary Approach, 1981
From Merriam Webster online.
In essence, autopoiesis is what makes aging and elderhood possible – not just from a biological standpoint (Francisco Varela started there but took the notion well beyond it), but also from a perspective of presence in the world, of consciousness. The “production” of our living with autopoiesis is the ever present process of life here – of creation and destruction, unity and dissolution, death and birth, and of change. I think of a quote from Heraclitus: The sun is new each day. Contrast that with the oft-quoted: There is nothing new under the sun. The latter is from the book of Ecclesiastes. They seem to be polar opposite in expression, but of course they are not if we look at what they describe as a process of change that is endless.
So back to autopoiesis – our growth, our production of our presence depends in no small part on the absence of something, the clearing away through disappearance and decay. That may be the source of our longing, our searching for that which we lack, which is what keeps many of us moving in this world. That seeking can be uncomfortable and cause us to feel lonely. Rabbi Abraham Heschel observed in his book God in Search of Man:
Day after day a question goes up desperately in our minds: are we alone in the wilderness of the self, alone in the silent universe, of which we are a part, and in which we feel at the same time like strangers? It is such a situation that makes us ready to search for a voice of God.
So that sense of missing something, our aloneness, the absence required by the autopoiesis is something that seems to haunt us! (Hence the Halloween theme, I suppose!) We often insist that we be able to identify, name, classify and therefore predict this system of life, which includes our own on a cellular level as well as the system of life on our planet and presumably beyond. But this predicting from our familiarity with the system is inherently unpredictable. This autopoiesis has, as Bruce Clarke has noted, “a multifarious cultural history, itinerant discursive career and contrarian stance,” thus making it applicable to the context here. . . .
We may experience autopoiesis and not really be cognizant of it in any meaningful way, and this is perhaps one of the ways in which we fail to see the connections between us, as people, as living beings in a larger biological system or environment. Do we see this aliveness beyond ourselves or do we dismiss or limit it, denying it because it is beyond us, beyond some boundary of who we think we are in terms of our experience or thinking process.
Okay, you might be wondering where I’m going with this autopoiesis notion and aging – but it is clear to me that the ability to recollect, to reflect on one’s life experiences and to create and recreate meaning, is an immensely important function of elderhood. This is what is known as gerotranscendence, the empirically based theory of psychology which suggests that aging, elderhood, offers a generative aspect of creating new meaning and purpose in life as we age. It is nothing new under the sun but rather a “re-enchantment with aging,” a huge step in our death-denying, youth obsessed culture. I’ll finish this post next time, so please stay tuned.
©Barbara Cashman 2015 www.DenverElderLaw.org