Gerald C. Cupchik
Siegfried Schmidt: Founder and Facilitator
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III

I was very happy that Siegfried found time to respond to my e-mail inquiries about the origins of his positions regarding systems theory, polyvalence, and constructivism. This material provides helpful background material for those who are unfamiliar with formative aspects of his theoretical development. In response to one of my letters this past Fall of 1999, he wrote:

»In your last mail you asked me to describe my way to systems theory and constructivism. It is not so easy to do that but I'll try. I have been prepared for that kind of thinking for two reasons, personal ones and literary ones. You may know that I have been working with the Wittgenstein staff for a couple of years in the early sixties. During my stay at Bielefeld University in the seventies, I came into contact with Niklas Luhmann who was my colleague in sociology, and with J. D. Sneed who came there as a visiting professor, and from whom I learned a lot about the non-statement view in the philosophy of science. Both were representatives of a systemic way of thinking and of a non-positivistic stance towards ontological and empirical questions. So in a way I was rather prepared when I came across the writings of H. R. Maturana in the late 70s more or less by chance - a friend of mine, W. K. Köck, was then trying to translate Maturana's nearly untranslatable »Biology of Cognition«.

During a conference in Madrid, I met von Foerster and von Glasersfeld, and both of them impressed me as warm hearted intellectuals who had a message to tell: the message of self-reference, self-organisation, and paradoxes, i.e. the constructivist message. It took quite a while until I really understood what they meant, I had to learn a lot about cybernetics and neurobiology, which was not too easy for a literary scholar. But I felt it was worthwhile, and since I got in rather close contacts and edited most of those three thinkers writings in German I learned by doing as it were. A turning point in this development has been the publication of the reader »Der Diskurs des Radikalen Konstruktivismus« in 1987. In a long editorial preface, I tried to epitomize the gist of constructivism. This publication was very well received and made constructivism known (and me as a constructivist, too). But at that time my own philosophical background started to remind me that the neurobiological and cybernetic stuff could not be the whole story. So in the nineties I started adding a socio-cultural complement to the biological constructivism which contained hitherto forgotten components like emotions, culture, and above all: the media. The result has been my book on »Kognitive Autonomie und soziale Orientierung«. The next step has been an implementation of crucial topics in the constructivist discourse, e.g. a constructivist notion of »empirical« (in »Die Zähmung des Blicks«) and a constructivist theory of media (in »Kalte Faszination. MedienKulturWissenschaft«, forthcoming).«

In response to my request for the origins and development of the notion of »polyvalence,« Siegfried wrote in a letter of November 9, 1999:

»I developed this concept [polyvalence]...in the late sixties and early seventies in articles and books, e.g. »Ästhetizität. Philosophische Beiträge zu einer Theorie des Ästhetischen«, München 1971; »Ästhetische Prozesse. Beiträge zu einer Theorie der nicht-mimetischen Kunst und Literatur«, Köln-Berlin, 1971; »Elemente einer Textpoetik. Theorie und Anwendung«, München 1974. None of these publications contains a reference to Eco. The two mutual constitutive concepts ›polyfunctionality‹ and ›polyvalence‹ were developed in outspoken contrast to cybernetic essays of that time (H. W. Franke, M. Bense, R. Gunzenhäuser) to define the aesthetical as an intrinsic property of the art work itself. Instead, I advocated the idea that the aesthetical (just like meaning) is a relational property emerging from the interaction between text and reader: If an art work is produced in a polyfunctional way, ie.such that it is systematically ambiguous due to its structural complexity, a reader is able to reasonably attribute to such a work various readings. This is only possible if a work of art is not pragmatically embedded, i.e., if it is not produced to serve a very specific pragmatic purpose. Only then is a reader able to relate it to vari[ous] possible contexts to constitute the (fictive) semantic text world representing his/her meaning attribution.

When I started to work on my »Grundriss der Empirischen Literaturwissenschaft« in the late seventies, I found out that we have to widen the perspective from texts and readers to text-reader-context-systems, i.e., to the social and the symbolic system of literature. This shift of perspective brought me to reformulate my previous ideas without abandoning the gist of my argumentation. So I reformulated polyvalence in terms of a convention exclusively characteristic for the literary system. This reformulation was designed in terms of a difference (mono/polyvalence). The polyfunctionality stuff was reformulated in the difference between fact- and aesthetic-convention which claimed that only in fictional discourses creative strategies of ambiguity were tolerated.«

We learn from these letters how chance encounters with insightful scholars provided Siegfried with stimulation for personal intellectual growth, taking him far afield from his original efforts as a literary scholar. Not only did he extend his field of interest to include neurobiology, cybernetics, and sociology, but he adopted the broad perspective of a systemic constructivist. Firmly grounded in the field of literary studies, Siegfried reached into other disciplines and nourished the roots of his central ideas.

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