In a previous post I discussed a similarity between the non-philosophy of Francois Laruelle and the sociological work of Niklas Luhmann. Outlining Luhmann’s theory of observation, I there wrote:
Proceeding from Spencer-Browns calculus of forms, this is exactly where Luhmann begins in his “sociology”. All observation, Spencer-Brown argues, requires a distinction to be possible. Here it’s important to be careful. “Observation”, for Spencer-Brown and Luhmann is not an empirical terms referring to the five senses and measurements, but is a formal and functional structure. Spencer-Brown begins his Laws of Form with the imperative “first draw a distinction”, which is a structure similar to Laruelle’s theory of decision. With the drawing of a distinction, a space is cleaved in two. This space cleaved in two is what Spencer-Brown calls a “form” and is the unity of a marked space and an unmarked space. With the distinction it now becomes possible to observe or indicate what falls under the unmarked space, e.g., white males (marked space) vs everything else (unmarked space).
The key point for Luhmann is that the distinction itself is always invisible for the observer that uses the distinction to observe because of its functional nature. One can observe a marked space through a distinction or observe a form/distinction, but cannot observe through a distinction and observe the distinction one uses to observe or make indications. And, of course, if one opts to observe a distinction, they must make yet another distinction to observe that distinction which will itself be invisible to the observer and have its own unmarked space. At any rate, Luhmann refers to the distinction that allows an observer to observe a marked state as the blind spot of the observer. Every observation implies a blind spot, a withdrawn distinction from which indications are made, that is not visible to the observer the observes. The eye cannot see itself seeing.
Putting Luhmann’s thesis into Kantian language, his thesis is that distinctions are “the condition for the possibility” of observations. In other words, the observation does not precede the distinction, nor does the distinction arise from an observation. Rather, observation is only possible where a distinction is first drawn, and then one begins to make indications or observations based on this distinction. The observation, of course, is an indication of what falls under the marked space of the form. For example, biology is only possible based on a form that cleaves a marked space (life) from an unmarked space (everything else). The biologist sets aside everything else in order to attend only to what falls within the marked space of its distinction. Once again, in Kantian terms we can say that the form is the transcendental, while the indications of what falls in the marked space of the distinction is the empirical.
There are two important points to note here. First, every “technology” of observation has its blind spot or unmarked space. It is impossible to make any indications at all without delimiting a marked space. That delimitation will necessarily be accompanied by an unmarked space that falls outside indications. Put differently, there is no form that does not contain an unmarked space. We can thus say that every apparatus of observation is characterized by a constitutive finitude. There is no view from nowhere, nor way of observing that observes everything (even for God, as Judge Schreber well knew). Second, every observation suffers from a sort of “transcendental illusion”. The distinctions or forms we use to indicate things in the world become invisible while we use them. While every indication requires a distinction that necessarily contains an unmarked space, we are generally unconscious of the distinctions we use (they withdraw into the background) and are unaware of the unmarked space that haunts our distinctions. If we noticed the unmarked space of the distinctions that render our observations possible, then they wouldn’t be unmarked. As a consequence, our tendency is to treat the world that we indicate (the empirical) as identical to the world itself, ignoring the manner in which our experience (the empirical) is transcendentally constituted by a distinction we have drawn.
For Luhmann, the task of sociology consists in observing the observer. Before proceeding to discuss this, I see no particular reason to restrict this project to sociology. Luhmann, of course, has his reasons for treating this as a project for sociology rather than philosophy. Philosophy, claims Luhmann, is a discourse of ontology that seeks to investigate what is and what is not. Sociology, for Luhmann, brackets such concerns, suspending the question of what is and is not, instead restricting itself to what social systems think exist and do not exist. For example, if you’re doing a sociology of religion you don’t occupy yourself with questions of whether or not religious claims are true or have a referent, but instead investigate how religious communities encounter their world.
There are two problems with this thesis. First, it is incoherent. There’s no way around making ontological claims, no matter how much one insists that they’re not making ontological claims. Here there really needs to be a rhetorical analysis of how claims to be outside of metaphysics and ontology function as communicative strategies for advancing the hegemony of ones own ontology and metaphysics. Luhmann is minimally committed to the thesis that observers exist. To make the claim that observers exist is to make the claim that particular classes of entity are. This is an ontological claim. Its the claim– not unlike Leibniz’s or my own or Harman’s or Bogost’s –that being consists of observers (though we don’t all use that language). In my ontology, to be a machine or an object is to be an observer. An object isn’t simply something observed, but is something that observes. Second, there’s a rich tradition in philosophy of observing the observer. We find it in Kant, of course. Among the phenomenologists, and so on.
Back to observing the observer or second-order observation. “Observing the observer” doesn’t consist in looking at a person, animal, computer, or rock and observing them; but rather consists in looking at the forms or distinctions that a system uses to make indications. At a very abstract level, we can say that “observing the observer” or second-order observation is the formal schema for all critique. Critique does not so much consist in “debunking”, as observing the distinctions that a discourse uses to make its indications or observations. Critique uncovers the historical a priori– to use Foucault’s term in The Archeology of Knowledge –or historical transcendental upon which a particular mode of observing the world is based. In particular, critique aims to draw attention to the unmarked state upon which observations are based (what is excluded?), and the manner in which the distinctions or forms used to make observations withdraw from the observer, creating a “reality effect” that make the world experienced by observers seem identical to how one observes in the marked space. In observing the distinctions that an observer uses to make their indications along with the blind spots that inhabit their distinctions, we open the possibility of broaching new areas of inquiry and investigation, as well as recuperating the excluded. In other words, second-order observation is primarily about observing the blind spots, the unmarked space, and how they systematically function with respect to the marked space.
However, there is an ethics to critique. First, we must remember that no observer is infinite. Not only is every observer finite in that the very possibility of their observation requires an exclusion in order to create a marked space where indications become possible, but we must also remember that observers are finite in terms of time and space. There’s a tendency to forget this when we make criticisms of observers for not having read x or y, or for failing to take q and r into account. Such criticisms are always premised on the fantasy of omniscient observers that, like Laplace’s Demon, have no limitations physically, in terms of energy, in terms of time, in terms of information availability as to what they have access to, and so on. When we make arguments of this sort, we’re implicitly berating people for not being omniscient. There seems to be nothing generous nor ethical in such demands. Indeed, they look like the demands of a sadistic Kantian superego. Such demands are worse when we treat such oversight or ignorance as being based on malicious intentions, rather than as the result of mere finitude.
Second, we must also always remember that our observation of observers in our critical capacity does not violate the general structure that applies to all observations: to observe is to draw a distinction that produces a form that necessarily produces an unmarked space and where the distinctions we use withdraw from our own awareness. All too often, second-order observers treat themselves as being omniscient, failing to recognize that their own observations contain two blind-spots: the unmarked state of their own distinction and the withdrawal of their own distinction from view such that the world comes to seem as identical to how they observe the world. This is as true of the critic as of the observer whose transcendental the critic discloses.