In response to my previous post Aaron makes some interesting observations about contemporary media theory:

In media studies these days there is a tendency to move away from the term “mass media,” as the effects of market segmentation, the niche-ification of media consumption, the decline of networks and newspapers and the rise of the internet are thought (in some corners of the discipline) to have rendered the term obsolete. But I think that the parasitical intertwinements that you point out and the global effects that they can induce provide strong arguments for the notion that there is still a centralized (or perhaps I should simply say “dominant”) mass media apparatus that is capable of organizing a common world, despite the economic and technological fragmentation effects of recent decades. There is also some pretty strong sociological evidence indicating that, contrary to popular belief, TV is still the dominant electronic medium–retaining the greatest informational and ideological reach– in most industrialized nations. Perhaps one reason that television has been able to hold its own in the face of new trends and technologies is precisely the felt need (on the part of both producers and consumers) to retain some sort of common center amidst the chaos of the exploding mediascape. Perhaps TV has cemented itself as the primary “mass media” within a proliferating forest of niches. One can only pray to the inexistent God that this particular center does not hold!

I haven’t discussed this too much, but one of the interesting features of Luhman’s media theory (and his sociological autopoietic theory in general) is that it requires difference to reproduce itself. A central axiom of Luhmann’s thought is that information repeated twice is no longer information. Systems require the production of information so that they might engage in further operations (the production of communication events) that allow them to exist from moment to moment, thereby reproducing themselves. For example, with 24 hour reporting it becomes necessary to constantly produce new stories lest the whole enterprise come to a grinding halt. Luhmann is careful to emphasize that this process has no telos or goal beyond its own self-reproduction. It does, however, require the endless production of the new. In order for this self-reproduction to take place, systems thus have to devise strategies for the production of the new so that subsequent events might occur. Take the example of the economic system. The loss of money through purchasing creates a lack of money that necessitates the accumulation of new money so that the process can repeat again. The economic system produces its own internal lack that then functions as a motor to reproduce it.

In his analysis of media, Luhmann is thus careful to emphasize that media systems do not aim to produce sameness or homogeneity of beliefs or opinions, but strives to produce differences. It’s for this reason that media particularly favor topics that are controversial and that allow for opposing and different positions. Topics are what link in the Common, are what form the shared world, not shared beliefs or positions. The value of these sorts of topics is that they allow for further communications allowing the system to reproduce itself. Now not only can the media system report on the topic (the latest research on AIDS for example), but it can produce further communication events allowing it to reproduce itself by reporting on the variety of opinions and disputes that arise within the topic.

This allows the system to get to the next round of events in the order of time, thereby continuing its existence. From the standpoint of autopoiesis, there’s a further benefit to this as well. The reporting of topics that allow for disputes and differences generates uncertainty and doubt about the truth of any particular position and what’s being reported. This uncertainty and doubt (“is the media biased?”) generates the possibility of further communications addressing worries about ideological mystification, propaganda, bias, etc. We thus get a weird sort of Common that’s produced not out of sameness of sentiment, custom, and belief, but out of a unity of differences, conflict, disagreement, debate, etc., where people are linked not by sharing the same view but by a series of topics where opposing positions are possible (evolution or creationism? democrat or republican? abstinence or pre-marital sex? etc). The unity of the world thereby becomes an antagonistic unity where this world is able to reproduce itself as a unity not through the production of consensus, but through a production of antagonism or difference. From a social and political point of view this makes questions of political engagement and intervention particularly vexed as it is precisely through opposition and antagonism that the system reproduces itself.