Luhmann


Over at Jon Coburn’s blog, we have been having an interesting and productive discussion about normativity that has, I believe, clarified (at least for me) a number of issues and helped to define some basic differences. Apart from some brief moments of ugliness that led to an unexpected and very welcome burying of the hatchet between Mikhail and I, the comments accompanying this post are, I think, a good read. I had been working under the impression that normativity was synymous with deontological ethics (no doubt because it’s only ever people deeply influenced by Kant that I hear raising issues about normativity as a cornerstone to theory), but I’ve been disabused of this notion and assured that it refers to something far broader. I outline some of my own problems with Kantian deontological approaches to ethical questions, so I won’t repeat those arguments here. Pete Wolfendale has promised to write a post about this, which I very much look forward to as I’ve found myself perplexed for years as to just what all the ruckus is about and why it’s considered so important to those coming primarily out of the Frankfurt School (here it’s important to qualify that Pete tackles these issues not so much from the Frankfurt School perspective, but from the Brandomian perspective).

Over the course of discussion, one of the claims that was made by “anonymous” is that discussions of normativity are primarily about the metaphysics of meaning. As anonymous puts it,

The problem, so far as I see it, is that this very discussion — the one you want to have about normativity — can’t even get off the ground until we all realize that normative ethics isn’t a metaethics, that a metaethics is not coextensive with normativity, and normativity is largely an issue concerning the METAPHYSICS OF MEANING, the basic nature of rationality, and a structuring feature of our shared world. It is, as Jon pointed out precisely Humes problem concerning the medium of imperceptible necessary connections.

Pete very quickly followed this up, qualifying anonymous’ suggestion, emphasizing that it is about “the metaphysics of meaning or lack thereof” and that normativity pertain to discussions about correctness and incorrectness.

Now, it seems to me, coming at these issues from my Luhmannian perspective, that the concept of meaning is necessarily more basic and primordial than either notions of correctness and incorrectness, or issues of rationality. From an object-oriented standpoint, one of the reasons I’m attracted to Luhmann’s systems theory is that it emphasizes the autonomy and independence of systems, along with their closure. While systems do enter into relations with other systems, these relations are external and systems are independent entities.

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Responding to one of Anxiousmodernman’s comments in my post on BP, Circling Squares writes:

Estimates vary but its been reported recently that 27 million Americans are on anti-depressant drugs. (1) That is a heck of a lot of people who are medically numbed; it is pretty difficult to be angry, righteous and politicised when you are taking drugs to stop you from feeling. (2) Besides the direct effect on those specific people, this indicates a far wider tendency, as you said, to individualise blame, to accept failure as one’s own fault and thus, because one is trapped into that circle (there’s no way out, nowhere else to go from there), self-harm and self-medication follow.

There’s more to Circling’s response, so please go read it. There are a few points worth making in response to Circling’s remarks. First, anti-depressants don’t prevent feeling, but rather depression prevents feeling. When, in the grips of depression, everything is bland or gray. Nothing interests, nothing motivates, nothing excites, nor is there much in the way of any affect whatsoever. The depressed person is more or less paralyzed or completely numb. It is thus a mistake, I believe, to suggest– if this is what Circling is implying –that if only we weren’t medicated, if only we embraced our depression, we would be capable of acting. The reverse rather seems to be the case. Moreover, when anti-depressants are at their best, far from turning one into a numb zombie, they actually liberate affect and the capacity to engage with the world. It becomes possible to care or be engaged with the world around us.

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I’ve just begun Cary Wolfe’s What is Posthumanism?. So far, despite its interest from the perspective of debates surrounding post-structuralism and second-order systems theory, I can’t say that it is getting off to a very auspicious beginning. Here’s the problem: Cary’s argument seems to proceed by way of the signifier, signs, information, and second-order systems. In short, he proceeds by way of phenomena that are nonetheless human. His introduction, for example, makes a lot of Foucault’s Order of Things announces the end of man. But how does Foucault do this? Foucault does this by championing discursive structures and power in history. Yet these are still human phenomena. Here we’re still within a correlationist framework that pitches the issue in terms of specifically human phenomena.

In my view, the claims of anti-humanism, post-humanism, and those forms of theory that claim to be overcoming anthropocentrism are all too often highly overstated. Until you have an ontology capable of thinking objects without any reference to the human or human phenomena, you still remain in an anthropocentric and humanist orbit. Foucault in his discussions of power and discursive structures, Lacan in his discussions of the signifier and the real, Derrida in his discussions of the play of the signifier and the trace, Luhmann in his discussions of social systems as communication systems, all remain nonetheless all too human in their focus on the primacy of human phenomena with respect to everything else. Of this group, Luhmann is probably the best of the bunch insofar as he at least recognizes the existence of other systems that are not human or social in nature. But still he insists on tracing everything back to the distinctions our systems make in observing these systems.

The point here is not to reject Foucault, Lacan, Derrida, or Luhmann. Not at all. The point is to recognize that they conflate regional ontologies with ontology as such, treating modes of access as determinative of what things are. But the questions of how we have access to entities and the question of what things are are entirely distinct and are not to be confused with one another. Until we overcome our tendency to make that confusion we have not attained a posthumanist philosophy. But like I said, I’ve only just begin reading Wolfe’s book so perhaps I’ll be surprised as it proceeds.

UPDATE: As I get further in Wolfe’s book I’m finding that it’s much more interesting and complex than I initially thought. In the introduction Wolfe writes:

To return, then, to the question of posthumanism, the perspective I attempt to formulate here–far from surpassing or rejecting the human –actually enables us to describe the human and its characteristic modes of communication, interaction, meaning, social significations, and affective investments with greater specificity once we have removed meaning from the ontologically closed domain of consciousness, reason, reflection, and so on. It forces us to rethink our taken-for-granted modes of human experience, including the normal perceptual modes of human experience, including the normal perceptual modes and affective states of Homo sapiens itself, by recontextualizing them in terms of the entire sensorium of other living beings and their own autopoietic ways of “bringing forth a world”– ways that are, since we ourselves are human animals, part of the evolutionary history and behavioral and psychological repertoire of the human itself. (xxv)

Towards this end, Wolfe deploys the second-order cybernetics of Luhmann, Varela, and Maturana. Luhmann, especially, is one of the undiscovered gems of theory. If you’re interested in his work start with The Reality of Mass Media, and then proceed to Social Systems. In discussing “different perceptual modes” of humans and animals, Wolfe is simultaneously quite close and exceptionally far from object-oriented ontology.

First Wolfe’s proximity to object-oriented ontology. One of Harman’s most significant contributions to contemporary debates has been to note that the difference between the mind/object gap and any other object/object gap is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind. In other words, the gap pertaining to relation is, for Harman, ontological, not epistemological. As Harman so nicely puts it,

…there is no object at all, whether animal, floral, or mineral, capable of caressing the skin of another object so perfectly as to become identical with it or otherwise mirror it perfectly. When a gale hammers a seaside cliff, when stellar rays penetrate a newspaper, these objects are no less gulty than humans of reducing entities to mere shadows of their full selves. To repeat, the gap between object and relation is inherent in the nature of things, and not first generated by the peculiarities of the human mind. The fact that humans seem to have more cognitive power than shale or cantaloupe does not justify grounding this difference in a basic ontological dualism. (Guerrilla Metaphysics, 81)

In evoking different modes of perception in different critters and in drawing of the second-order cybernetic theory of Luhman, Maturana, and Varela, Wolfe appears to make a very similar point. Indeed, in chapter 4 or 6 of The Democracy of Objects (I haven’t yet decided where to place the chapter), I draw on similar resources to discuss the “interior of objects” and their relations to other objects. My move here is to ontologize Luhmann’s and Maturana’s essentially epistemological claims about systems and their environments, information, and self-referentiality. This strikes me as a direction Varela is moving in as well. What Wolfe wishes to draw attention to are the unspoken anthropocentric biases that govern our discussion of a host of issues. He argues that second-order cybernetic systems theory significantly challenges a number of these assumptions and allow us to discuss modes of perception that aren’t human.

However, if Wolfe’s thought is nonetheless remote from object-oriented ontology, this is for two reasons: First, Wolfe still seems to think these issues in epistemological terms. Rather than seeing selective relations entertained towards other objects as a general ontological feature of each and every object or as a fundamental feature of the world itself, Wolfe seems to adopt the pessimistic thesis that this marks the impossibility of our knowledge. Yet this thesis only follows if one worked from the premise that knowledge is a matter of representation or adequatio intellectus et rei. If, as Harman has argued, withdrawal is a general ontological feature of the world, this model of knowledge was mistaken from the outset and we need to significantly rethink our epistemology as a consequence. Here the skepticism that has characterized post-structuralist thought is ripe for a Zizekian “healed by the spear that smote you” move. Far from being a limitation of specifically human knowledge, withdrawal is a general ontological feature of the world. It’s the very nature of being. This Wagnerian move is at the heart of Harman’s ontology.

Second, while Wolfe indeed makes advances by extending thought to the domain of the animal and those with disabilities (he has an inspired reading of Temple Grandin), nonetheless he suffers from illicitly restricting these claims to the living. That is, a non-living/living dyad still seems to function in his thought, restricting these “modes of perception” to the living. Yet if Harman is right, these points are every bit as true of rocks and cotton as they are of aardvarks and humans. Here, I suspect, Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology will be especially interesting. For if I’ve understood Bogost correctly, Alien Phenomenology wants to raise questions like “what is it like to be a rock or a computer circuit”, thereby opening discourse to nonhuman and inanimate domains.

Over at Amazon I notice that Wolfe’s book has received some negative reviews. It appears that one of two (or maybe both) things are going on here. Either Wolfe’s reviewers lack a background in theory and are frustrated with a book that presupposes some knowledge of theory, or Wolfe’s reviewers harbor anthropocentric sentiments and are irritated at his dethroning of humans from the center of being. At any rate, if you’ve read his book and received it favorably consider writing a positive review to offset these unfair reviews.

Recently Mel’s got me reading Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman, which is rewarding for a variety of reasons (Yes, yes, I know, I should have read this long ago, but damn it Jim, I mean Mel, I’m a philosopher not a cultural theorist!). First, at one of her recent talks she spoke favorably about OOO, so its worthwhile to return the favor and delve into her work so as to see the points of productive cross-over between these different theoretical projects. Second, it’s hands down a first rate book that ably defends a highly provocative and timely thesis, despite being published in 1999. And finally, it’s reminding me of all sorts of things from cybernetics, systems theory, and autopoietic theory that mesh nicely with the ontology of objects I’m groping towards. In particular, Hayles’ analysis sheds light on what it might mean to refer to objects as “withdrawn” or entirely autonomous from one another.

Hayles begins How We Became Posthuman by distinguishing between first, second, and third way cybernetics. First wave cybernetics focused on the phenomenon of feedback or how systems are self-regulating. As described by the online dictionary of cybernetics and systems, feedback is,

A flow of information back to its origin. A circular causal process in which a system’s output is returned to its input, possibly involving other systems in the loop. Negative feedback or deviation reducing feedback decreases the input and is inherently stabilizing (see stability, regulation, homeostasis), e.g., the governor of a steam engine. Positive feedback or deviation amplifying feedback increases the input and is inherently destabilizing, explosive or vicious, e.g., the growth of a city when more people create new opportunities which in turn attract more people to live there. Feedback is not the term for a response to a stimulus rather for the circularity implied in both. (Krippendorff)

The example of the growing city above is an example of positive feedback. By contrast, we can think of the humble thermostat as a system organized in terms of negative feedback. Here the issue is one of maintaining a particular homeostasis within the system. Thus, you set your heat for the desired temperature. When room temperature drops below that set point, the heater kicks on and runs until it rises to the set temperature, shutting off once again.

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AAAADEskSs8AAAAAAE6XqwOver at the blog err…whateverz. snugglebus I has posted a couple of nice posts on Speculative Realism. Before getting to the actual content of the posts, I’d first like to note that I love it that here in the blogosphere making interesting and thoughtful remarks with names like “snugglebus”. Moving on to the content, snugglebug defends speculative realism against some criticisms by Giuseppe in his second post. As snugglebus writes:

Responding in the comments however, Giuseppe thinks I kind missed the point entirely. As he put it:

what is it that lures intellectuals into the comfort of “reality” in the rather consolidated turn that so many social sciences are experiencing towards some form of “ontology” (another way, very academic indeed, to name the interest in the “real” nature of things)?… I suspect it has something to do with a very precise insecurity and a certain modesty that affects social scientists when they are compared to solid scientists: the former would talk about real, solid, things, the first would just babble away about the sex of angels.

Ok – I’ll take the bait! I’m not an SR scholar, just an interested, but uninvested, spectator, so I might not be the most effective spokesperson, but this will help me start to work out my own thoughts on a group of thinkers who I have been following for a while now.

I think there is a lot more to the success of SR than a reactionary response to the fact that ‘physical’ science is saying ever more concrete things about areas that were once the preserve of social scientists. Just anecdotally SR people (see for example Larval subjects here) seem to be intensely interested in hard science and thinking its consequences (though SR is concerned above all with metaphysics, not philosophy of science). In fact I think it would be more productive to turn Giuseppe’s view on its head: isn’t it actually crude idealism that expresses the insecurity (in a very different, less modest form than Giuseppe meant) of social science? Doesn’t idealism sometimes seem to shut scientific ‘reality’ away, seeing science somewhere between a naïve enterprise at one end of the spectrum (whereas we know that ‘truth’ is a function of consciousness, power, signs etc.), or just a separate field that is at best interesting, but not our concern as social scientists…?

Obviously I cannot speak for all the speculative realists and, in fact, it is impossible to do so as our positions tend to be radically different. For example, beyond a rejection of the centrality of the human, my own thought shares almost nothing in common with that of Brassier’s. Brassier advocates a sort of eliminative materialism that leans heavily on the hard sciences, whereas I advocate a realism. While there is a robust place for the sciences in my ontology, I do not see the sciences as delivering us to “true reality” whereas all the other disciplines investigate things that are epiphenomenal or mere illusions. In this I follow Bruno Latour in his rejection of the nature/culture distinction, the division of the world into two distinct ontological domains– the domain of nature and the domain of the subject –and instead replace this division with collectives of human and non-human actors. This is quite a difference.

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For the last few days I’ve been a bit remiss in responding to comments and email due to being swamped with other things. I apologize for this. Today, in response to my post on Orientalism, Jerry the Anthropologist writes:

Allow me to wonder how this post might look to someone reading it at Universitas Kebangsaan Malayu or at Gadjah Mada or at San Carlos. Its not that I don’t appreciate (or that they might not appreciate) the elegance of the argument.

Put another way, somewhat over 50 years ago, after having examined somewhat over 300 definitions of culture, A. L. Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn wondered whether its not so important what culture is as what culture does.

Hopefully my friend Jerry will say a bit more about his distinction between “culture being” and “culture doing”. For my own part, I have become suspicious of concepts like “society”, “culture”, “economy”, “language”, etc., because I think all too often these concepts tend to hypostatize phenomena that are really complex networks of interactions. South Park recently had an uncharacteristically good episode on precisely this issue with respect to the economy that is well worth watching. We treat the economy as if it itself were doing something, as if it were an entity– the episode is all about how we have “angered” the economy and must repent –when, in fact, the economy is us. The thesis of this post is that we tend to hypostatize things like “culture” and “society”, turning them into entities when, in fact, they’re processes. In developing this line of thought, I am not denying phenomena like orientalism, but raising ontological questions about the conditions under which it is possible.

This, I think, is part of the importance of the concept of “assemblage” or “network”, as opposed to that of “system” or “structure”. By system or structure I understand a form of organization where the elements are inseparable from one another such that their being is purely a function of their relations within that organization. For example, in structural linguistics the phoneme p is nothing apart its differential relation to the phoneme b. Indeed, according to this account we already speak poorly by referring to “b” and “p” as phonemes as there is only b-p or the differential relation defining the two terms. This sort of concept then gets applied to social phenomena as well, such that no element in the social exists apart from the other elements, or rather, all of the elements are what they are by virtue of belonging to the organization. From a system theoretical perspective, the analogy is generally to biology where all the elements are understood to have a functional role and set of interdependencies within the social system. From the structural perspective the analogy is to structural linguistics where the elements are inseparable and only take on identity differentially.

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inquisition-wheelIn listening to the daily flood of new documented insights about the former Bush Administration’s “Enhanced Interrogation Technique” practices, one of the most frustrating elements of the whole discussion is that it has been pitched in terms of the question “does torture work or not?” Although it strikes me as obvious that torture does not work– one need only read the first volume of Aleksander Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago to get this –the truly frustrating thing about the whole debate is that it shouldn’t be a debate at all. Why don’t we see more people standing up and saying “It doesn’t fucking matter whether or not it works! It’s wrong!” Not only are there countless utilitarian reasons as to why this is bad policy, there is the, above all, the simple point of our own dignity and the dignity of other humans. However, perhaps part of the reason such a debate is so upsetting has to do with the very nature of topics and how they function in the social field. All of this brought me to reflect on a passage from Niklas Luhmann’s wonderful Reality of the Mass Media today. Luhmann writes:

Topics… serve the structural coupling of the mass media with other social domains; and in doing this they are so elastic, and so diversifiable that the mass media are able to use their topics to reach every part of society, whereas the systems in the inner social environment of the mass media, such as politics, the economy or law, often have difficulty presenting their topics to the mass media and having them taken up in an appropriate way. The success of the mass media throughout society is based on making sure that topics are accepted, regardless of whether there is a positive or a negative response to information, proposals for meaning-making or recognizable judgments. Interest in a topic is frequently based precisely on the fact that both positions are possible [my emphasis]. (12 – 13)

stem_cellIt’s a real pity that Luhmann’s sociological theory has not gotten more attention, though not a surprise given the difficulty of some of his work. In works like his monumental Social Systems, Luhmann following the work of Maturana and Varela in biology and cognitive science, sought to understand the social field as a dynamic, autopoietic system composed of nothing but events that both produce and reproduce the system in time. Luhmann’s heretical sociological thesis was that the social is composed of nothing but communications. In other words, in the parlance of autopoietic systems theory, individuals and persons do not belong to social systems, but rather belong to the environment of social systems. They are, as it were, entirely outside social systems. As a result, communications are not, according to Luhmann, the product of persons, but rather communications are the product of other communications. Persons can irritate social systems– Luhmann’s technical word for “stimulate” –but persons as such never provide information– difference that make a difference –for social systems. This is because what counts as information is always based on a code that is self-referential in character. If the codes determining whether or not something counts as information (an event) is self-referential in character, that is because information does not belong to the environment of the system– it is not in the “things themselves” –but is rather constituted by the system itself. Put otherwise, there must be an “ontogeny” of information that is system specific. In short, systems are “organizationally closed”. Just as the elements of a biological cell both are a product of and reproduce the cell itself, and just as the cell is only selectively open to an environment or other cells about it, social systems are characterized by an organizational closure that renders them only selectively open to the world about them.

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