Bogost complains when I write too many posts in a single day, but I have to get thoughts down as they occur to me. Today is such a day (perhaps it has something to do with being licked by a giraffe yesterday). At any rate, Luhmann has, on occasion, been described as the most resolutely posthumanist thinker that ever existed. Why might this be? The key thesis of Luhmann’s sociology is that humans belong to the environment of social systems. What does Luhmann means when he says this? He means that social systems are not composed of humans. While humans are a necessary condition for social systems (in much the same way that certain chemicals are a necessary condition for DNA), they are nonetheless outside the social system. For Luhmann, social systems are composed not of humans, but of communications. Communications, for Luhmann, communicate with communications. They aren’t messages sent to a person from another person. Rather, communications only ever respond to communications. Humans can perturb social systems according to Luhmann, but they cannot participate in social systems. If you want to understand the dynamics of how all of this works, read The Reality of the Mass Media and Social Systems.
So why is Luhmann’s theoretical orientation posthuman? The first thing to note is that it is not antihuman. Luhmann does not deny the existence of of humans (what he calls “individual psycho-neurological systems), nor does he reduce humans to products of the social and linguistic systems or power. Individual psychic systems are every bit as real as any other system in Luhmann. It just happens that humans aren’t a part of society, that’s all. Perhaps we can get some traction on the issue by comparing humanism or anthropocentrism to posthumanism. Humanistic and anthropocentric approaches are such because they treat human systems (individual psychic systems) as an essential component of any and all relations. In an anthropocentric or humanistic approach, for example, we ask how humans relate to society, how humans relate to a particular form of technology, how humans relate to other forms of life, and so on. The equation– which Meillassoux calls “correlationism” –is always one in which we are to ask how the “human is related to x”. For example, we might ask how humans make use of various forms of military technology.
What makes Luhmann’s approach so different is that he asks how society experiences and relates to such and such a phenomenon. Luhmann treats society as a set of organisms or entities in their own right, and wonders how these entities relate to the world around them. Here communications are no longer treated as instances of a person’s beliefs or representations, rather they’re treating as events taking place within a particular entity that resonate with other elements of that entity (other communications) in particular ways that either diminish or enhance that entities possibilities of self-(re)production across time. Here we don’t ask why this or that person believes this or that communication, but how that particular event functions in this assemblage, system, or object. Here we encounter what Deleuze called the “surface” in The Logic of Sense. Luhmann’s posthumanism would thus consist in the manner in which he takes system references seriously. In Luhmann’s case, it is society that is taken seriously as a system or object in its own right. von Uexküll asks not how humans experience a bee, but rather how bees experience the world about them. DeLanda asks how the military machine experiences the world. Ian Bogost envisions an “alien phenomenology” that wonders how various technologies and objects experience and relate to the world around them. Harman wonders how objects experience the world about them. Dasein becomes a system-referential term that has to be thought in terms of each type of object whether we’re talking about a political movement, a quark, a giraffe, a corporation, a cellular automaton, a fiction, a genre, or a computer program. Now it is no longer a question of how humans are relating to x. A classroom or class, for example, is not a relation between a teacher or professor and students, but is an organism, system, or entity in its own right that relates to communication events in its own right. Both professor and students are caught up in the dynamic of this object or system in a variety of ways that they can neither master nor control. In this regard, pedagogy and composition theorists would do well not to think about what’s going on with the student or how the professor intervenes, but rather in terms of how communication events are functioning in the network defined by this object. Here the class itself is an entity and the teacher and students belong to the environment of this entity. They are literally outside it. What exists in it are the communication events that take place within it. Teacher and student can only perturb this object leading to new events within the system. How does this system metabolize these events? That would be the question.
If this is the case, then the question of politics changes significantly. Here I am not proposing a normative thesis as to what politics should aim at. Rather, I am referring to the sorts of things that political theory needs to take into account. It would be nice if human beliefs and norms were all the actants involved in politics, but if it is true that corporations, protest movements, nations, etc, etc., etc., are all objects, entities, or systems in their own right, we now discover that humans (individual psychic systems) are caught in the orbit of other systems that function according to their own principles and processes. As Latour famously puts it, it is not the pilot that flies a plane but the U.S. Air Force. As DeLanda puts it, what does such and such a war machine “want”? Here we find a whole series of entities that we contend with, that draw on us in various ways to produce themselves, but which know next to nothing about our existence. How do we form a politics capable of engaging with these entities? People might have the mistaken belief that I have a deep love of objects because of my ontology. That misses the entire point of the mereology that I’ve tried to develop. Often, for me, it’s a question of how to destroy objects that have captured human bodies within their “regime of attraction”. How do we contend with these terrifying machines that transform our perturbations into communications and use us in their own autopoietic reproduction in ways contrary to the aims of so many of us animals (humans and bees alike)? For me, that’s the key question. But if we’re to begin posing that question we must first know something about these objects and how we’re structurally coupled with them. I confess I’m somewhat ontic-centric.