One of the central claims of Luhmann’s sociological autopoietic systems theory is that societies consist entirely of communications. For those not familiar with autopoietic theory, an autopoietic system is roughly a system that 1) produces its own elements, and 2) that has no direct relationship to other entities in its environment. Thus, for example, a cell produces the elements that compose it through interactions among these elements. Each event that takes place within the cell is a response to other events that take place within the cell. Moreover, since the cell is contained by a membrane, it shares no direct relationship to its environment or is operationally closed. While the cell can be perturbed by events in its environment, the manner in which these perturbations will affect the cell will result from the cell’s internal organization, not the instigating cause. In other words, an autopoietic system will always process perturbations according to its own organization.
One of the key claims of autopoietic theory is that these systems are without teleology or goal. While from an outside observer’s perspective, we might perceive the cell as having a particular function as in the case of nerve cells relaying information, from the standpoint of the cell’s internal functioning the only “aim” of the cell is to continue its operations from moment to moment. From this perspective, the cell serves no particular function, but rather merely operates in such a way as to maintain its own existence.
Luhmann sought to apply autopoietic theory to society, arguing that societies are autopoietic systems. In approaching society in this way the claim was that societies produce themselves and their own elements (various social roles, positions, and institutions), and as operationally closed systems, they share no direct relationship to their environment or that which lies outside their boundary. For Luhmann, the events or elements of which societies consist are communications. In other words, one of the most disturbing Luhmannian claims is that societies are not composed of persons, but rather communications. As such, persons belong to the environment of such systems. They are literally outside of societies. As a consequence, because the elements of a system can only respond to other elements of a system, humans cannot communicate with societies and societies cannot communicate with humans. To be sure, humans can perturb social systems, but those perturbations will always be “processed” or registered in terms of the organization of the social system, not what the person intended. As Luhmann strikingly puts it, “communications can only communicate with communications”.
In keeping with the non-teleological orientation of autopoietic theory, for Luhmann communication has no goal beyond producing more communication so as to continue the existence of the social system. In other words, unlike theorists such as Habermas where communication is directed towards an aim such as consensus, finding truth, justice, etc., for Luhmann communication only communicates to communicate. Nothing more, nothing less. And here we must recall that for Luhmann it’s not people that communicate– we might very well have all these admirable goals –but rather it’s only communications that communicate.
This is where things get very disturbing from the standpoint of emancipatory theorists and seekers of truth such as ourselves. If Luhmann is right, if it is true that the aim of social systems (not people) is to continue communications so as to maintain and continue their existence, then it follows that the central problem every social system faces is how to produce new communications based on events of communication that just took place. This entails that social systems will privilege those communicative events that contain, in germ, the maximal possibility of producing further communications. For Luhmann, systems will evolve selection mechanisms that privilege those communicative events that maximize the possibility for producing further and additional communication. At this point, everything is turned upside down. For if Luhmann is right, what types of communicative events will be privileged in the operations of such a system?
They will not be events such as consensus, because consensus leads to the dissipation of communication and therefore the disintegration of the social system (as the social system only exists in its continuing operations, just as Harvey observes of capital). Rather, the types of communicative events that will be favored in such a system will be all those that produce novelty or the possibility of further communication. As Luhmann often remarks, “information is the difference that makes a difference” and “information repeated twice is no longer information.” Information goes stale and thus requires the production of novelty to generate subsequent communication. Yet if this is true, what are the types of communications that will be privileged in such a system: controversy, scandal, vagueness, the obscure, paradox, conflict, the enigmatic, disagreement, the strange, and many other things besides that share a family resemblance to these things.
If these sorts of communicative events will be privileged within social systems, then this is because they maximize the possibility of producing further or subsequent communications. Where clarity and consensus tend to lead to a cessation of the production of further communicative acts, all of these communicative acts call for further communicative acts. With controversy everyone encounters the need to put in their two cents. The enigmatic, strange, obscure, and vague (as in the case of works of art), call for interpretations which are further communicative acts. Scandals, like controversies call for everyone to participate. Those things that are impediments to clarity and consensus seem to be favored within social systems, whereas those things that tend towards clarity and consensus also tend to be passed over unremarked. And if they are passed over unremarked, then this is precisely because, according to Luhmann, they aren’t generative of further communications. Here we might think of television news as a paradigm case. The old joke– at least in The China Syndrome –runs that “bad news is good news.” This is because bad news introduces novelty into the media system, allowing it to perpetuate its existence from one report to the next. By contrast, it is a disaster if the only thing to report is that children are well fed and doing well in school, people are walking about doing their thing unmolested, countries aren’t at war, the sun is shining, there’s no rain, it’s 75 degrees, etc. These things could only become significant news in the context of an absolute distopia. Contrary to what Michael Moore seems to suggest in Bowling for Columbine, the news media isn’t organized around a conspiracy designed to make us encounter the world as perpetually menacing, rather it necessarily gravitates towards the anomalous, the dangerous, the deviant, etc., as these are all communicative events that generate further communications thereby allowing the media system to perpetuate itself.
Likewise, we might here think about the paradox of analytic philosophy where the drive for clarity seemed to generate the greatest obscurity in technical vocabulary. Consider, for example, the writing of Sellars or the the Zen like koans of Wittgenstein. Doesn’t part of their success lie precisely in their esoteric nature, an esoteric nature that generated all sorts of further communications at the level of commentary, interpretation, and elaboration. Indeed, we could think of the analytic/continental divide as two strategies of obscurity that, out of their obscurity, have generated all sorts of further communications… Those further communications consisting of both commentary and denunciation. In other words, communicative acts that generate denunciation are, from the standpoint of autopoietic functioning, highly successful as they’ve continued the ongoing autopoiesis of the social system. In a very real sense, the opposition and conflict is what perpetuates and holds the social system together.
In connection with this thesis, a number of perplexing things about trends in the humanities academia become clear. When, for example, a theoretical orientation becomes regnant, we should not assume that this is because it has somehow generated a consensus or is agreeable to many academics, but rather that it has generated a controversy and work for academics. Here we can think of deconstruction, postmodernism, and phenomenology (and another theoretical orientation that has recently gotten a lot of attention). From a Luhmannian perspective, part of the success of deconstruction and postmodernism was that both orientations generated controversy, thereby generating further communicative acts throughout the academy in both declarations of allegiance and in denunciations. Likewise, postmodernism was able to perpetuate itself through generating controversy at the level of allegiance and denunciation up to and including the intervention of Sokal and Bricmont. Far from undermining postmodernism, Sokal and Bricmont actually contributed to the continued existence of postmodernism as a successful communicative strategy within a particular social system. The same can be said of the New Atheists with respect to fundamentalist religious movements. Far from undermining religion they actually perpetuate religious discourse and intensify it by creating a cite in which a proliferation of communicative acts were possible. With phenomenology matters are different. It’s unlikely that phenomenology has ever really generated a controversy (which is no doubt part of what made it attractive during the McCarthy years and their aftermath). Rather, what accounts for the success of phenomenology– like, in part, the success of deconstruction –is that it created work for academics, opening up an infinite domain of communicativity by creating all sorts of opportunities for further commentary, analysis, and investigation. By contrast, those philosophical positions that seem to languish in obscurity would do so not because they fail to hit the truth or say something significant, but because they fail to create any novelty or difference capable of generating further communicative acts. Shoulder’s are shrugged as people say “yeah, that’s true.”
So here’s the rub. These claims are not happy claims, nor normative claims citing approval. If these things are true, if this is how social systems actually function, these things are deeply depressing. The central question becomes, “how is it possible to intervene in such systems if interventions are routinely recouped so as to reproduce or continue the very systems we’re trying to topple.” Put differently, how is it possible to destroy these objects?