This article proposes a possible synthesis between the concept of structural coupling with the milieu, derived from the thought of Maturana and Varela, and the concept of semeiosis derived from Peirce. The purpose is to develop a vocabulary and conceptual framework in which to envisage the relationships among autopoietic systems i.e. organisms, against which communication can take place. By showing how the sign emerges from structural coupling, this article hopes to encourage (or reinforce) a gestalt shift in scholars of communication, away from a conduit metaphor of sending and receiving communications, and towards a grounding of communication in the relationships among organisms and their environment(s), which include other organisms. When these organisms engage habitually in what Maturana calls the “coor-dination of coordination of behavior,” and especially when this involves languaging of the human type, then the environment to which they are coupled also involves a system of signs, which, as Peirce demonstrates, is continually changed by the very interpretive actions which constitute it. Human languaging is “the play of signs” because play is a process of “co-imagining” in which organisms generate a repertoire of potential behaviors by placing themselves outside the immediate (‘serious’) context of adaptation/ structural coupling. But within the cooperative domain of human work i.e. the human collaborative structural coupling with its shared environ-ment or milieu, this “play of signs” can pass or fail the test of effectiveness. Humans engaged in cooperative work co-coordinate their structural couplings by way of conversationing, a co-coordination which depends upon their shared encounter with a Secondness or “otherness” with which they grapple together – an “otherness” which can never be known directly, but only approached by the work of fallibilist human cooperation.
This paper is an exploration of a new cybernetic approach to ‘power’ which is developed in a dialectical fashion out of a respectful response to Gregory Bateson’s famous distaste for and dismissal of the concept. Thus it begins with an evocation of Bateson’s objections to ‘power’ as an explanatory principle. It continues by examining, point by point, a conference paper Bateson wrote late in his life in order to try to pick apart the concept and see what meat might be gleaned from its carcass. It then turns to my own attempt to use the autopoiesis theory of Maturana and Varela, and in counterpoint Bateson’s theories of system and adaptation, to develop a new theory of what ‘power’ might mean, which I call the theory of ‘power as relational asymmetry. ’ This theory is all too briefly then applied to ecology, animal behavior, and human social evolution. Some of its implications for contemporary approaches are touched upon. Finally the paper returns to Bateson and explores his ethical and epistemological objection to the putatively ‘scientific’ practice of the oversimplification of human motivation, and it observes that here may be found some of the roots of Bateson’s dislike of the ‘power’ concept. Any cybernetic concept of the domain of ‘power’ should retain Bateson’s motivational pluralism.