I forgot to respond to some of Reid’s questions about system-references in my last post. I don’t know whether Reid has been following my posts for the last few months, but I argue that objects are essentially systems. Following Maturana and Varela (though my major points of reference are Bateson, von Foerster, and especially Luhmann), I distinguish between autopoietic systems and allopoietic systems. An autopoietic machine, Maturana and Varela argue,

is a machine organized (defined as a unity) as a network of processes of production (transformation and destruction) of components that produce the components which: (i) through their interactions and transformations continuously regenerate and realize the network of processes (relations) that produced them; and (ii) constitute it (the machine) as a concrete unity in a space in which they (the components) exist by specifying the topological domain of its realization as such a network. (Autopoiesis and Cognition, 78 – 79)

Translated into English, autopoietic systems are systems that produce their own components through their own components. These systems roughly compose the domain of the living and the social, though there might be other autopoietic systems as well. By contrast, allopoietic systems are systems that are produced by something else. These systems are roughly the domain of the inanimate.

The key feature of autopoietic systems is that they are operationally closed. Operational closure refers to two things: First, it refers to the manner in which the operations of an autopoietic system only ever refer to and relate to themselves. For example, communication only ever refers to other communications. Second, it refers to the way in which a system relates to an environment. Systems do not directly relate to their environment, they do not receive information from their environment, but rather they constitute their own openness to an environment. A system can be perturbed or irritated by its environment, but the information value that this perturbation takes on is not something that was already there in the environment, but is rather constituted by the organization of the system itself. Put crudely, what counts as information for a frog can count as nothing for me, and supposing that a frog and I are perturbed by the same something in the environment, we can nonetheless produce entirely different information out of that perturbation. As such, information is always system-specific. I differ markedly from Maturana and Varela and argue that this second sense of closure (selective relations to an environment), is not unique to autopoietic systems, but is true of all objects, whether autopoietic or allopoietic (though information functions in very different ways in each case). One of the most important points here is that information is not something transmitted or exchanged between systems (sometimes we think of communication as the transmission of information that remains the same for sender and receiver). Information is system-specific and does not exist independent of the system in which it occurs. Or as Lacan (and Luhmann) liked to say, all communication is miscommunication.

Hopefully this is enough to give Reid a sense of what I’m talking about when I talk about “system-specificity” or “system-references”. The point is, that whenever we make claims we need to specify the system to which these claims pertain. We can’t generalize across systems because each system has its own internal organization and therefore relates to the world in its own specific way. As I suggested above following Luhmann, societies are themselves autopoietic systems. If this is true, we can’t make the sort of universalistic, a priori claims that a lot of transcendental philosophy would like to make. Rather, we have to analyze social structures on a case by case basis to determine 1) how they are organized and thus how they produce meaning events, 2) the specific way in which they’re open to the environment, and 3) how they evolved or developed the particular distinctions that regulate their own internal processes and relation to the environment. If this is true, certain forms of transcendental philosophy have to be excluded a priori because they illicitly generalize over very different cognitive and social systems, working on the premise that they all share the same internal structure or organization. I see this as thoroughly consistent with Marx’s understanding of values. Marx was always careful 1) to analyze the emergence of specific values in terms of particular forms of social organization, and 2) to emphasize the historical situatedness of particular values in particular social organizations. In this regard, values for Marx aren’t merely “instantiated” in particular material conditions as Reid seems to suggest, but rather are products or inventions of particular social forms not unlike evolution is the invention of new species and forms of life.

In order to discuss systems we have to engage in second-order observation, observing how other systems observe their environment, rather than working naively from the premise that we observe the world in the same way. In a number of respects, this is precisely the problem with more traditional transcendental approaches. Although they attempt to self-referentially take the organization of the observer into account by analyzing the transcendental structure of mind, they nonetheless don’t take the additional self-referential step of recognizing that they observe differently than other systems and therefore end up illicitly generalizing one transcendental structure to all subjects, rather than recognizing that the world is populated by an infinite plurality of transcendental structures not unlike Leibniz’s monads. The problem, then, is that while there might be an “a priori” (note the square quotes), this “a priori” is always system-specific and can’t be generalized across systems. And since autopoietic systems are evolving systems that each have a contingent history and a contingent organization, we can’t generalize a priori structures across cognitive systems or social systems, but have to look at systems in their specificity like good Lacanians who recognize that there’s no general structure of mind or good neurologists who recognize that each brain develops differently.

I’ve written about autopoiesis quite a bit lately, and have been writing about Luhmann for years. In my view, one of the major failings of contemporary social and political thought is that it fails to take into account the operational closure of systems and therefore doesn’t even raise the question of how to communicate with a social system to change it when that system is closed by virtue of being organized by its own distinctions. This question has been one of the oldest and longest running themes on this blog. Moreover, I’m surprised that more Lacanians haven’t raised similar questions given Lacan’s theory of interpretation and the challenges facing interpretation or the analytic act when dealing with an autopoietically closed analysand. At any rate, if Reid is interested he can read more about systems here, here, here, and here, or he can do a search for Luhmann on this blog.