In my view, the best place to begin reading Luhmann is The Reality of the Mass Media. There Luhmann gives an exceedingly clear formulation of the basics of his autopoietic sociological systems theory that is also valuable by virtue of illustrating how it can be put to work in the analysis of a particular social system: the media system. From there the next place to go is Theories of Distinction, where you’ll get Luhmann’s account of how distinctions render observations possible (distinction, for Luhmann, is much like the transcendental in Kant) and discussions of constructivism, blind-spots in observation, etc. With these two texts under your belt, you’ll be in a position to tackle Luhmann’s exceedingly abstract, formal, and difficult opus (the one translated anyway), Social Systems.
I won’t go into all the details of what a system is here (and recall that, for me, objects are either allopoietic or autopoietic systems), but will instead simply outline some salient features of the media system. For Luhmann, no system can exist unless it draws a distinction between itself and its environment (Social Systems, 16). The system/environment distinction is therefore always the primordial distinction that precedes any other distinctions. There must be a boundary between system (or in my language, object) and environment. Moreover, the environment of a system is always more complex than the system itself. Put differently, there is never a one-to-one mapping between system and environment. Rather, any relation a system entertains to its environment is always selective.
This point about selectivity can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s theory of fantasy. A fantasy, for Lacan, is not an imaginary scenario where we envision the fulfillment of a wish– such as me imagining what it would be like to burn down the road in a Dodge Challenger –but is rather an answer to the question “what does the Other want, when the Other desire of me?” The desire of the Other is always opaque, enigmatic, polysemous, and riddled with contradictions. In Harman-speak, it is withdrawn. Indeed, it is so withdrawn that not even the Other knows what it desires. Fantasy provides the means of veiling this desire by transforming it into something determinate. In Plague of Fantasies, Zizek argues that fantasy is a shematism between the subject and the Other. Fantasy is a way of structuring the signals that we receive from the Other into a determinate message. In Seminar 6, Desire and its Interpretation, Lacan compares fantasy to a window frame through which we view the world (the emphasis on the fact that something is always “out-of-field” whenever we look through a window).
Here, then, we find a perfect example of the manner in which a system’s relationship to its environment. Suppose that I interpret all messages from the Other as attempts to trick, persecute, or pull one over on me. This is an example of a fantasy that transforms the enigma of the Other’s desire into a determinate demand or message answering the question “what does the Other desire?” A subject animated by this fantasy will, on the one hand, be on the look out for messages that support this schematism. They will be particularly attuned to social events that suggest this is what is taking place. On the other hand, such a subject will ignore, be blind to, or not notice speech events that do not reinforce this fantasy or schematism. In other words, fantasy marks the selective way in which a particular system (an individual psychic system) relates selectively to an environment that is more complex than itself.
A key feature of the system/environment distinction is that it is a distinction drawn or produced (depending on what type of system we’re talking about: autopoietic or allopoietic) by the system itself. Put differently, the distinction between system and environment does not exist in the environment of the system, but is drawn by the system itself. The manner in which our neurotic above, for example, distinguishes itself from the Other is not a feature of the Other but of the neurotic.
This is one reason Lacan spent so much time talking about figures such as the Mobius strip, the cross-cap, the Klein bottle, and so on. The Mobius strip is a figure which, from our three dimensional perspective, appears to have two sides, but which, in reality, has only one side. The neurotic above wonders whether the Other is devising a plot or conspiracy against him. In other words, he thinks there’s an other side that might or might not be plotting against him. The logic of the Mobius strip, by contrast, is such that while we appear to be relating to the Other, this experience of the Other is how he processes the perturbations he receives from the Other. As Luhmann will say in The Reality of the Mass Media, the operations of a system generate a transcendental illusion whereby we take our own operations as reality, as features of other beings themselves, rather than as our own operations (RM, 4). Here, then, we encounter another meaning of withdrawal. What a system directly relates to are its own operations— what Graham would call “sensual objects” –not directly other entities themselves. The system or object is like a bubble or black hole that relates only to itself or what takes place within it.
In certain types of autopoietic systems– animals with a particular degree of complexity, humans, certain computer systems, and social systems –the distinction between system and environment renders a further distinction possible: the distinction between self-reference and other-reference. Allopoietic objects and a number of autopoietic objects, while founded on a distinction between system and environment (i.e., while being a product of a distinction between themselves and world) would relate strictly to their own operations (events taking place within the system), and not to the world. To be sure, such systems can be perturbed by other entities in the world, but the perturbations are always transformed into system-specific events that possess no direct one-to-one correspondence with the world. This would probably be true of systems such as stars, rocks, bacteria, cells, and so on.
In other autopoietic systems, by contrast, there would not just be a relation to operations or events that take place within the system, but rather this operations would form a further distinction between self-reference and other-reference. Self-reference takes place when a system refers to operations taking place within itself. This point can be understood with reference to the difference between a neurotic and a psychotic. Take the proposition “they think you’re ridiculous!” The neurotic ascribes this to self-reference insofar as he treats this as a thought that he has that is occurring in him. The psychotic, by contrast, perhaps hears a voice say this to him. The psychotic doesn’t treat this utterance as an operation that is taking place within him, but rather treats it as an event that is taking place outside of him. A self-reference is thus a reference that treats the event as taking place within the system, rather than taking place within the environment of the system.
Other-reference, by contrast, treats the event as taking place in the environment of the system. Here’s another example. When Rachel Maddow argues that the reporting on the protests in Wisconsin has been terrible, she is working within the field of self-reference. She is making a claim about events or operations within the media system, not the environment of the media system. When CNN reports on the potential nuclear meltdown unfolding in Japan, it is making an other-reference. That is, it is referring to an event taking place in the environment of the system (where the system in question is the media system). Here then we see the major difference between those allopoietic and auopoietic systems that lack sufficient complexity to make other-references and those autopoietic systems that have attained a degree of complexity allowing them to make other-references. The former systems do not refer to their environments but only to their own internal operations. The latter distinguish between operations that take place within them and operations that take place in their environment.
Here’s the rub, however: Just as the distinction between system and environment is either produced or drawn by the system itself such that it doesn’t exist in the environment of the system, the distinction between self-reference and other-reference is drawn by the system itself. It is the system that constructs this distinction. Put differently, an other-reference is an operation within a system (what Graham calls a “sensual object”), not something in the environment of the system (which is emphatically not to say that events do not take place in the environment of the system). Hence Luhmann will write,
We therefore opt for operational constructivism, not only here but also in the realm of epistemology. Constructivist theories maintain that cognitive systems are not in a position to distinguish between the conditions of existence of real objects and the conditions of their own knowledge because they have no access to such real objects other than through their knowledge. (RM, 5)
Luhmann will go on to remark that,
What is meant by ‘reality’ can therefore only be an internal correlate of the system’s operations– and not, say, a characteristic which attaches to objects of knowledge additionally to that which distinguishes them in terms of individuality or kind. Reality, then, is nothing more than an indicator of successful tests for consistency in the system. Reality is produced within the system by means of sense-making. It arises whenever inconsistencies which might emerge from the part played by memory in the system’s operations are resolved [sic.] –for example, by the construction of space and time as dimensions with various points at which different perceptions or memories can be localized without conflicting with one another. (RM, 6 – 7)
Here we have to proceed with caution as the term “reality”– what Ian Hacking calls an “elevator word” –has both epistemological and ontological connotations. Epistemologically “reality” signifies what is real for us. Ontologically, “reality” signifies what exists or is real regardless of whether anyone knows about it, refers to it, or represents it. Luhmann is using reality in the former sense, referring to what a system treats as real in the order of knowledge. Ontologically, whether or not an object treats other objects as real is irrelevant to whether they are real. OOO is able to both integrate conclusions of Luhmann’s sort while still maintaining an ontological orientation precisely because it begins from the thesis that objects are withdrawn.
A number of difficult social and political questions emerge in relation to these properties of objects or systems. Melanie Doherty explores some of these questions in a wonderful talk at the New School Leper Creativity symposium devoted to Reza Negerastani last week (starting around 16:00). Approaching Negerastani’s Cyclonopedia from the perspective of the systems theory outlined above, Doherty uncovers the paradoxes surrounding this novel, all of which play on the self-referentiality of the environment/system and self-reference/other-reference distinction. The novel a novel, and therefore would seem to be governed by self-reference, yet it is also a theoretical work and therefore seems to be governed by other-reference. When you begin to investigate the back story of the novel you find all sorts of events in the blogosphere (other-reference) that seem to mirror events depicted in the novel (self-reference). Is the novel a record of events that actually took place? There are ample events depicted in the blogosphere that suggest this (especially surrounding Kristen Alvenson). Does Negerastani really exist? Is his theoretical work, such as that published in The Speculative Turn a fiction or genuine theoretical work?
In a couple tweets today, Mark Fisher declares that rumors of Reza’s non-existence are a triumph of Hyperstition, and that the goal of Hyperstition is not merely to make fictions real but to make the actually existing a fiction. Meanwhile, in response to Robin Mackay’s Leper Creativity presentation (starting around 1:28) where it is declared that Reza is, indeed, a fiction invented by a committee, Reza, on Facebook, frantically declares that he really does exist and worries that there are dangers to infinite fictional regress.
What makes Mel’s talk so interesting is that she approaches Cyclonopedia as something more than the paranoia induced by Pynchon’s Crying of Lot 49 taken to the nth level by elements of its plot bleeding beyond the covers of the book into the internet, and brackets the uninteresting question of whether Reza exists or not, whether the book is cybernetically authored by multiple people, whether it is fiction or history, etc. By this time we’ve all heard tell of the death of the author, the reality of simulacra, and the glossolalia of all language. Instead, Doherty opts to approach Reza’s book as an object that operates in the world and that operates interobjectively with other objects (in particular, media systems). Brilliantly drawing on Deleuze and Guattari’s distinction between the unconscious as a theater (representation) and the unconscious as a factory (production), Doherty opts to approach the novel as a machine, raising questions about what it does and how it works, rather than as an artifact that represents the intentions of an author or the world.
In the foregoing, we have seen that the distinctions drawn by any system are always self-referential. The distinction between system and environment and self-reference and other-reference are themselves always drawn by the system that employs these distinctions. These distinctions are self-referential in the logical sense. Yet nonetheless, as I noted above, they create a transcendental illusion whereby the distinctions themselves withdraw, become invisible, such that a reality effect is produced. Under Doherty’s reading, the paranoid effect produced by Reza’s novel (and by tracing the archival traces of how the novel was produced) open the possibility of second-order observation that allows both these transcendental illusions are produced (how the media system produces other-reference or a particular type of reality). By hystericizing us with respect to all other-reference such that we come to question there truth, we find ourselves in a position to begin interrogating the dominate narratives or constructions that structure media reality. Cyclonopedia thus becomes a sort of therapy that functions not by representing the manner in which other-references are constructed in media systems, but by enacting the experience of the paradoxes that allow these to function. As a result, we come out the other side in a rather paranoid state of mind, now inhabiting something like Husserl’s transcendental epoche with respect to these constructions. There is thus a critical function at work in this novel.
However, Doherty approaches the novel from another direction as well. If it is true that systems are self-referential in the sense that they construct their own distinctions between environment and system, self-reference and other-reference, and if it is true that systems are operationally closed such that they only ever relate to perturbations in terms of their own operations and distinctions, how are we able to intervene in systems to change them? Let’s return to the example of the neurotic convinced that everyone is plotting against him above. What form of address can we engage in with respect to such a person that doesn’t simply reinforce this fantasy structure, confirming the schema that governs how he processes all perturbations from others, but rather transforms these schema? This was the question that occupied Lacan from one end of his analytic practice to the other. What is the analytic act?
Doherty raises a similar question with respect to social systems. Social systems, we can say, are characterized by massive redundancy. Working on the Shannon/Weaver model of information, when transmitting a message we are to fill that signal with such massive redundancy so as to reduce noise and insure that the message is transmitted from sender to receiver. We can think about social systems in these terms as well. Social systems are structured by massive redundancy (of codes and negative feedback loops) so as to stave off entropy and insure that the social structure or system maintains itself across time, reproducing dominant narratives, codes, social roles and identities, hierarchies, and class stratifications. It is in this way that the social system maintains certain basins of attraction that channels persons and social relations in particular ways.
Faced with such redundancy, Doherty wonders how it might at all intervene. Doherty proposes what she calls “noise fiction” and “noise politics” as a possible model of political intervention. Unlike Shannon/Weaver style cyberneticians that see the goal as one of reducing noise so as to faithfully transmit a message (Wiener, for example), Doherty notes that there’s another tradition of cybernetics (Luhmann, Bateson, R.D. Laing, Serres, etc) that sees noise as a creative principle within systems that allows them to evolve and change. For Doherty the question then becomes that of how it is possible to use noise to intervene in social systems that are characterized by massive redundancy. Noise here would serve two functions: On the one hand, so long as it parasitically carries redundancies of codes along with its noise, it embodies the possibility of scrambling these codes, decoding them, so as to set them in motion along new evolutionary lines of flight that depart from their negative feedback role.
Here noise would contain the possibility of undermining regimes or basins of attraction that come to organize bodies in particular ways through redundancy or the functioning of codes and negative feedback loops. As such, it would become possible for new attractors to emerge. When referring to the process of “decoding” in the context of Deleuze and Guattari, we should exercise care. Decoding does not refer to the act of finding the hidden message behind an encoded message), but rather refers literally to the undermining of a code. Here we might think of Joyce’s method in Finnegan’s Wake which decodes language not by showing us what language “really means”, but rather by deploying the power of the homonym, the equivoke, and the pun to undermine the fixity of meaning or sense, allowing new meanings, senses, paths of thought, etc., to emerge. Decoding is the dreamwork in action. Through the grafting together of the heterogeneous, the use of polysemy, etc., codes become scrambled diminishing their possibility of reproducing various oppressive forms of social relations. Noise fiction and politics thus disrupts not through a classic style critique premised on unmasking or demystification, but by producing the possibility of lateral sliding within social systems. Such a literature acts on the social system, it engineers, it does, rather than represents. It proceeds not through a representation of codes and feedback loop, but through a representation that intensifies processes of deterritorialization opening the way to the formation of new attractors. Enough for now.