1) Every system (object) is founded on a distinction between system and environment. The environment of a system is not a container that pre-exists the object, but is rather constituted by its environment. It is thus necessary to distinguish between the world and the earth. The world is the environment of a system to which it is open. The earth is what exists regardless of whether the system exists or whether the environment can register it. The distinction between system and environment defines what is inside and outside the system. Every system therefore contains a boundary or membrane– whether operational or physical –between itself and its environment.
2) The environment of a system is always more complex than the system (Luhmann tends to conflate world and earth). For this reason, there can never be a one-to-one correspondence between a system and elements in its environment. Systems necessarily simplify their paths of access to their environment. These paths of access– for autopoietic machines –are ways of anticipating the future. For this reason, every system involves risk, for it is possible that its horizons of anticipation will come up against an event in the environment that it did not anticipate and that destroy the object. An example of this is the relationship between governmental systems and climate change. The duration under which climate change unfolds is too gradual for government systems to register them. Government systems, due to their system of anticipations, work on the premise that the climate will behave as it has in the past. As a consequence, they do not make the requisite changes to respond to these environmental changes. At a certain point this catches up, generating problems for agriculture, weather, etc., etc., that destroy the infrastructure social systems require to continue their ongoing autopoiesis.
3) Systems (objects) are operationally closed such that every event that takes place within the system only refers to other events that take place within the system. Systems cannot communicate with their environment but only with themselves. This is part of what it means to say that objects are withdrawn from one another. The distinctions a system uses to relate to its environment do not themselves exist in the environment of the system. How a system registers the environment will thus not be identical to what it registers in its environment. For example, physical objects necessarily have weight but the way we measure weight is not itself a feature of the object measured, but is, rather, a feature of the system that measures. The distinctions a system uses to relate to its environment contain blind spots. To distinction is to cleave a marked space from an unmarked space, where the marked space opens what can be indicated in the environment. The unity of marked and unmarked space is the distinction and is a form. The unmarked space is one blind spot. It is what goes unregistered by the system using its distinctions. The distinction itself is the other blind spot as, when a system uses its distinctions to make indications these distinctions become invisible to the user, creating a “reality effect”. Kilograms come to seem like properties of objects in the environment of the system that measures itself.
4) The distinctions a system uses to make indications and distinguish itself are self-referential. They are drawn by the system itself and do not exist in the environment of the system. The distinction I draw between sleeping and waking is a distinction I draw as a psycho-biological system. The distinction I draw as a psycho-biological system between my interpretation of what another person says (self-reference) and what issues from another person (other-reference) is a distinction that I draw to distinguish what is inside of me and outside of me. This self-referentiality of distinctions used to relate to an environment is a second meaning of what it means to be withdrawn. Systems are always trapped in themselves and therefore never directly touch or encounter an outside.
5) As a consequence, every distinction is paradoxical by virtue of its self-referentiality. As a self-referential psycho-biological system I try to distinguish what is merely my interpretation of another person’s words and that other person’s words themselves, yet this distinction is itself a distinction that I draw. As a consequence, this distinction is itself an interpretation! Because every distinction between system and environment is self-referential it is therefore necessarily paradoxical. This entails that every system must find a way to resolve the paradox upon which it is founded by either 1) veiling its distinctions so the paradox does not become apparent (where “Law = Law” is out in the open law is unable to function), or 2) by operationally resolving its distinction in time. The distinction between dreaming and waking is a distinction I draw as a psycho-biological system and can therefore itself be an element in a dream, but in subsequent operations in time I can further verify that I am indeed awake through operations like pinching myself. This is what Freud meant by the “reality principle”.
6) The distinctions another system uses to relate to its environment can themselves be observed by another system through “second-order observation”. First order-observation consists in observing what can be indicated based on a distinction that withdraws, e.g. I draw a bunch of x’s on a piece of paper, draw a circle on the paper, and then indicate the x’s that fall inside the circle. Here the x’s that fall outside of the circle fall into the unmarked state or blind state of the distinction. Second-order observation, by contrast, consists in observing how another system observes or relates to its environment. This consists in observing how that other system draws distinctions. Yet to engage in second-order observation I must myself draw a distinction to observe the other observer and thereby find myself in paradox again. Here Luhmannian systems analysis is able to integrate Derridean deconstruction. As Luhmann argues in Theories of Distinction, deconstruction is second-order observation that discloses the unity of a distinction (between its marked and unmarked state) and its way of grappling with the paradox its distinction generates.
7) Systems cannot communicate with each other. As Lacan said, all communication is miscommunication. While systems can perturb, caress, or irritate one another, they cannot convey information to each other, nor communicate with each other. This is because systems are self-referentially constituted and because they are operationally closed. As a consequence, systems receiving perturbations from other systems will transform that perturbation into information according to their own self-referentially closed organization. The other day I asked my daughter if she wanted to be a scientist when she grows up. With righteous anger, she responded saying “No way! Scientists only draw signs and I want to make beautiful works of art!” I was perplexed for a moment until I realized that to her ears “sign” and “scientist” are homonyms of one another, sounding alike. For her a scientist is not someone who investigates the world, but a person that merely draws signs. This is an example of the operational closure of a psycho-biological system (my daughter) and how it transforms a perturbation (“do you want to be a scientist?”) into a communication event for itself (“I don’t want to draw signs!”).
8) Social systems are not composed of humans, but communications. Humans or psycho-biological systems belong to the environment of social systems. Only communication can communicate and every social system (or object) communicates in and through its self-referential and distinctions and reproduces itself through its own operationally closed events. Psycho-biological systems can perturb social systems, but these systems will transform these perturbations into information according to their own code or distinction. Take the example of the legal system and the economic system. The legal system operates according to the distinction legal/illegal. The economic system operates according to the code profit/loss. When the legal system perturbs the economic system, that perturbation will be processed not in terms of the code legal/illegal, but profit/loss and vice versa. Likewise with any psycho-biological system perturbing a social system. A militant socialist activist group can perturb the economic system, yet the economic system will process those perturbations in terms of opportunities for profit (“let’s merchandise their clothing!”) or loss (“this will prevent us from accumulating capital!”). Consider the scene from Reality Bites where the music television channel has “polished” Winona Ryder’s documentary. Ryder has worked patiently and passionately to produce a documentary that speaks eloquently about the plight of gen-xers. When the music channel gets its hands on the video, they turn it into a product placement show that seeks to form youth as consumers.
9) The distinctions a system uses to relate to its environment code between noise and information. Noise is whatever falls into the unmarked space of a system’s distinctions, such that it is coded as irrelevant or meaningless. There is thus a transcendental aesthetic for each system or object that constitutes its modes of openness to the world. One of the great questions of politics is how to transform noise into differences that make a difference, escaping the iron manner in which systems transform events into elements in their own code, changing the distinctions systems use to relate to their environment, and destroying the distinctions systems use to relate to their environment.
10) There is no teleology or purpose to systems or objects beyond reproducing themselves across time. The operations and events that occur within a system are not for the sake of attaining some goal, but rather function to stave off entropy or dissolution for one more moment by producing one more event that can then function as a launching point for another event. From the standpoint of the system itself, all that matters is that another event can be produced on the basis of the preceding elements or events that have now dissolved.
11) Because objects or systems have no teleology or aim, consensus or agreement are often bad things for social systems. Agreement tends to lead to the end of communication, thereby leading to the dissolution of the social system. By contrast, conflict tends to produce further communicative events. Take a social system or object like the Democratic blog Dailykos. The psycho-biological systems (persons) that participate on this blog are all trying to accomplish their own political aims and goals (getting Obama re-elected, transforming capitalism, getting this or that bit of legislation pursued by Congress, etc). However, when Dailykos is viewed as an object or system in its own right, all of this is irrelevant. From that standpoint, all that is important is that, from minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, new communications events in the form of diaries and posts take place. From this standpoint, consensus among the events that take place within this communications system or object are not particularly desirable. Rather, it is the conflict that sustains Dailykos in its existence and allows it to reproduce itself across time. One person makes a sexist or racist remark. A dozen people write meta diaries denouncing this. Those feeling that they are unjustly called sexist write their responses in comments and further diaries. Passionate Obama supporters refer to the critics as the “professional left”, “Republican trolls”, people who have fallen prey to wishful thinking holding that Obama could just wave a wand and change everything, racists, etc. Progressives then write rebuttals explaining how they’ve gotten it all wrong. The same arguments and insults have unfolded now for three years in infinite variations with no sign of letting up. From the system’s point of view, the poisonous atmosphere of this site is not a bad thing, but rather affective generates all sorts of communications events that show no sign of ceasing allowing this system to endlessly reproduce its elements (critics and supporters, communicative interventions of this or that sort, etc). Moreover, the polemical frames, from a standpoint of natural selection, get selected for and evolve within this system, whereas the careful, polite, and well considered comments and diaries tend to get selected against as they don’t generate subsequent communications events.
12) Systems therefore must change to continue as the same. A system that brutely remains the same and does not change is a system that does not produce events in the next moment and that therefore dissolves. As such, the identity of any system or object (in the case of autopoietic machines) is an evolving identity, a changing identity, not a fixed identity. Identity is what a system does through the creation of novel events from moment to moment, not what the object is.
12) Meaning is the unity of a distinction between potential possibilities and the actually enunciated. I say to my friend, “let’s go get pizza!” That proposal is meaningful because the actual enunciation– “let’s get pizza!” –also alludes to alternative possibilities: “let’s get Italian!”, “let’s get Indian!”, “let’s get Thai!”, etc. The meaningfulness of a communicative event arises from the play of actuality and the other possibilities it foreclosed. As such, all communication involves anxiety, insofar as alternatives were always possible. Every actual is contingent, and it is for this reason that choosing and writing is so anxiety provoking. Every actual enunciation is haunted by the other possibilities it foreclosed.
13) Because meaning is the unity of the actual and a horizon of alternative possibilities, foundations in philosophy are impossible. A pure and absolute foundation would have to simultaneously be meaningful and admit of no other place to begin. Yet each actuality refers to a horizon of other possible beginning points and therefore turns out to be contingent.