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.

read on!

If Luhmann is right, then one of the prime questions of social and political theory becomes that of how it is possible to engage with this organizational closure of systems. Given that social systems are only selectively open to their environment based on a code that the system itself dictates (self-referentiality), the question becomes one of how it is possible to modify that code and engage that code so that it might become possible to generate new forms of information (new events capable of participating in the ongoing autopoiesis or re/production of the organization of the system).

And this, ultimately, is what is so important about topics as described by Luhmann. The thing to notice about Luhmann’s understanding of topics as they function in the ongoing autopoiesis of media systems is their bi-valence. Like Deleuze’s sterile sense in The Logic of Sense that is indifferent to whether or not it is affirmed or denied, rejected or accepted, Luhmann’s topics are indifferent to whether or not one is for or against the issue at hand. Indeed, the more disagreement there is over a topic, the more effectively the topic functions in promoting the ongoing autopoiesis of the social system by generating further communicative events that allow the system to re/produce itself as is (this identity, of course, being a dynamic process oriented identity like that of a cell, not a static structural identity) the better. There is thus something prior to (in the transcendental sense) propositions or judgments and arguments, that functions, as Deleuze had it, as the true generative transcendental condition of manifestation (the indexical from which a proposition is enunciated: “yesterday”, “tomorrow”, “I”, “you”, “we”, “the government”, “the party”, etc), denotation (the referent), and signification (the proposition) and from which these other three terms flower. This fourth generative dimension would be the sense or what Luhmann calls a “topic” (here I’m obviously squishing Deleuze’s and Luhmann’s terms together, though I think with some fidelity to both).

The upshot of all this is that rhetorical victory consists not in presenting the argument that has greater persuasive force either through its affective power or its logical rigor. We would like to think that this is the case, and indeed we sometimes score rhetorical victories on these grounds. However, while triumphing in debate either through marshaling all the embodied force of affectivity in an audience or through logical and deductive rigor, we still remain shackled to the topic or sense of the debate itself, in much the same way that Foucault argued that knowledge in the human sciences is governed by an episteme that exceeds whatever position one might take within the field of this episteme. The truly winning move– and here Deleuze’s meditations on the nature of games in The Logic of Sense is of the utmost relevance –is to escape the game altogether and create either an entirely new game or a game with rules that perpetually change. Zizek expresses this point with the utmost clarity in his short introduction to Mao’s “On Practice and Contradiction”.

The true victory (the true ‘negation of negation’) occurs when the enemy talks your language. In this sense, a true victory is a victory in defeat: it occurs when one’s specific message is accepted as a universal ground, even by the enemy. (Say, in the case of rational science versus belief, the true victory of science takes place when the church starts to defend itself in the language of science.) Or, in the contemporary politics of the United Kingdom, as many a perspicuous commentator observed, the Thatcher revolution was in itself chaotic, impulsive, marked by unpredictable contingencies, and it was only the ‘Third Way’ Blairite government which was able to instituionalize it, to stablize it into new institutionalized forms, or, to put it in Hegelese, to raise (what first appeared as) a contingency, a historical accident, into a necessity. (17)

mto.96.2.1.littlfd1Something similar took place in the United States in the transition from Reagan to Clinton. All things being equal, privatization and de-regulation proceeded at a pace that Reagan and his followers could have only dreamed of during the Reagan administration. The crucial point, however, was that by the time we reached the Clinton administration Reagan’s policies had become the “transcendental” sense of any and all political discussions, defining the vector or coordinate field for any possible position one might take. Reagan triumphed even though under a Democratic president. And likewise in the case of the church. Zizek’s point isn’t that in accepting the language of science the church suddenly gives up on transcendence, salvation, etc., but rather that it gets imbricated in a logic that exceeds it and that delimits its possibilities in advance. There’s a very real sense in which the shift from Creationism to Intelligent Design, despite all of the rhetorical subterfuge of the latter position, defines a genuine triumph for the evolutionary perspective because, at least implicitly, the Intelligent Design position is now opening itself up to the mechanisms of immanent critique as defined by scientific methodology. The real triumph to be aimed at, then, is the triumph of topics or sense, not the triumph of a particular position. In other words, prior to asking whether or not we advocate a particular position our first question should be to ask whether or not it is the topics, the sense, that are themselves the problem. Like the denunciation of a “false dilemma fallacy”, we should ask whether or not escape is not the better option.

2006-3-14-nazi-campAnd this, perhaps, is why the framing of the debate over rendition, indefinite detention without legal recourse, torture, etc., is so distressing. Ultimately it is not a debate over whether or not torture works, but rather over the meaning of the law. In framing the debate over these issues, whether one is for or against, in terms of whether or not it works one is ultimately claiming that the law itself is shackled to a set of utilitarian considerations that, in effect, mark the erasure of any and all law. It entails, as it were, that we are all homo sacer should expediency and circumstance demand it.