Over at Critical Animal Scu has an interesting post up on risk, trust, and systems. As Scu writes:

Systems still have to interact, but they do so without being able to fully grasp another system. Luhmann doesn’t use the term vulnerability particularly, but does employ the concepts of risk and trust in order to explain many of these interactions between systems. Trust is about the ways that systems interact with each other in ways that open the system up to risk. Risk isn’t just calculated danger, but risk involves taking chances that exceed calculation, and therefore trust exceeds a system’s calculation as well. Luhmann posits that systems that are more likely to trust tend to be ones that are more likely to thrive. Or, to put it another way, trust is “an attitude that allows for risk-taking decisions”.

The concept of risk is everywhere in Luhmann’s thought and is, I believe, one of the most attractive features of his thought. I can’t recall coming across any discussions of trust, but I might be forgetting his discussions of trust. I wouldn’t be surprised if such a discussion appears in his analysis of “double contingency” in Social Systems, where roughly he investigates who two systems that don’t have direct access to one another come to coordinate their action.

read on!

Back to risk. At the foundation of Luhmann’s systems theory is the distinction between system and environment. Systems necessarily distinguish themselves from an environment. The key point for Luhmann is that environments are always more complex than systems. Put differently, there is never a point by point correspondence between a system and its environment. Systems are, as it were, simplifying. For my money, Luhmann’s system/environment distinction already represents a substantial advance over a good deal of structuralist and semiotic thought. Let’s take the case of Levi-Strauss in The Raw and the Cooked. There, simplifying tremendously, Levi-Strauss shows how a simple semiotic opposition like that between the raw and the cooked functions as a sorting device that apportions everything else in the world a place in terms of whether it’s raw or cooked. In short, there is no outside to this semiotic network. In principle, the semiotic structure and oppositions encompass everything. As a consequence, it becomes difficult to understand how any cultural system ever changes, precisely because everything is presorted by these root oppositions.

Matters are very different in the case of Luhmann. Because Luhmann emphasizes the distinction between system and environment and underlines the manner in which environments are always more complex than systems, he is able to capture both the temporal nature of systems and the manner in which systems always involve risk. Because environments are always more complex than systems and because no system can ever anticipate everything that might issue from its environment, every selection a system makes in relation to its environment necessarily involves risk. The system of anticipations that structure an autopoietic systems can, in short, be mistaken. As Scu observes in his post, this dimension of risk follows the logic of what Hagglund calls “autoimmunity”. It harbors both the possibility of the destruction of the system, but also the manner in which systems evolve and develop.

We can think about the possibility of the destruction of a system in terms of the contemporary climate crisis. Clearly social systems are organized around anticipations that climate will continue to behave as it did before and that energy will continue to be available as it has been before. As such, the social system enacts no new systems of action and anticipation. Should the environmental conditions change significantly, social systems are thus threatened with the possibility of their own destruction.

However, the simplified nature of systems and the fact that they’re often mistaken in their anticipations is also what allows systems to evolve and develop. Failed anticipations lead to revisions in how systems are organized, generating new patterns of openness to an environment. This, I think, is something like what Jesus was trying to do in his praxis. In famous injunctions like forbidding us to not pray in public, calling for us to turn the other cheek, judge not lest ye be judged, forgiveness, and loving your enemy as you love yourself, Jesus perhaps sought to disrupt a system of anticipations in interpersonal relations. If, for example, I don’t hit back when someone hits me, this disrupts the anticipations of the person who has hit me, allowing, perhaps, for a transformation in these interpersonal relations. The person who hit me might, for example, feel remorse for his action, modifying those actions in the future with respect to me and others. Similarly, the audience viewing this exchange will be less likely to identify with the aggressor if the person that was hit doesn’t hit back (Martin Luther King and Ghandi used this strategy and new media to great effect in this connection). Similarly in the case of forgiveness. The person who has done wrong expects retribution and punishment. Psychologically this can generate further wrong acts in the future as a form of revenge against those who have exercised punishment. Perhaps forgiveness has the power to disrupt this whole ugly cycle, leading this person to change their actions as a result of the absence of retribution. None of this is unique to Jesus, of course. We find similar logics at work in the Buddhists, Socrates, the Epicureans and Stoics. The point here is that the failure for something expected to materialize in the environment can function as an impetus for the evolution or development of a system in new ways. As Luhmann likes to say in his more Sartrean moments, for autopoietic systems even absence can come to function as information.