Over at Philosophy in a Time of Error Gratton has a post up about the recent Wall Street protests. Gratton writes:

And if no one covered it, does it exist?

It turns out I get better access to news about it (or we all do, via the Intertubes), four days in, with scores of arrests, in the media capital of the world (TM). I got alerted that Keith Olberman had a piece about the lack of coverage on his still-little-watched nightly news program on Current. In any case, given the number of unemployed (or “underemployed and overeducated”) just in the tri-state New York region, it will be interesting to see if these protests grow as the days go on.

This is a perfect example of the importance of Luhmannian sociological autopoietic systems theory for political practice. Luhmann is a grim and pessimistic thinker when it comes to questions of political change. I would not go to him seeking a theory of political change. He does, however, allow us to identify salient features of social systems that might allow us to develop better emancipatory political practice.

read on!

Social systems are operationally closed objects. Operational closure means that the operations that take place within a system only refer to and respond to other operations within the system and that, therefore, there are no direct relations to events that take place in the environment of the system. For example, neurological events in my brain only refer to other neurological events in my brain and never to the external world. For this reason, there is never direct communication or interaction between systems. Two brains cannot communicate or transfer information to one another. Two social systems cannot communicate or transfer information to one another. Events in the environment of a system can, in many instances, perturb or irritate a system, initiating events in that system, but they cannot specify or determine how the system will take up and work these perturbations. As such, information is never something that passes between systems, but is always something systems themselves produce. I address all of this in more detail in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects.

This point can be understood through the example of me and my cat. As I pet my cat Tasha and she responds purring and sticking her rear up in their air I interpret this as her showing her affection and gratitude for my attention. From her perspective, however, this is probably a sexual exchange and she is lifting her rear to prepare for mating. We are both perturbing each other setting off further operations within our respective systems, but these perturbations aren’t an exchange of a self-identical message or information, but rather are understood and interpreted in very different ways for each system. As Lacan would put it, our “communication” is a miscommunication.

The consequence of this is that systems maintain only selective relations to their environment. Every system draws the boundary between itself and its environment and operationally maintains this boundary. Moreover, every system is possesses codes that determine those perturbations that it’s open to and those that it’s not open to. The environment of a system is always more complex than the system itself and no system registers everything that takes place in its environments. Great white sharks sense their world through the electro-magnetic fields of other organisms, I do not. Due to my psychoanalytic training, I experience another person’s slip of the tongue differently than a person that does not have this training and experience. For the latter person, the slip of the tongue is just a bit of meaningless nonsense, a mistake, whereas for me it is a trace of desire.

In the case of the Wall Street protests and the media we see precisely these effects of operational closure. The media system is an operationally closed system that is only selectively open to its environment. For whatever reasons, these protests fall into the “blind spot” of the distinctions the media system uses to determine its codes or openness to its environment. As a result, the protests end up failing to resonate with the broader social system, but rather are invisible. The media system is governed by what Ranciere calls a “distribution of the sensible” that regulates what can and what cannot appear. As a consequence, the protests are unable to interact with that other social system and produce change within it.

All of this entails that one of the central questions of political practice is the question of how to create system resonance between operationally closed systems. If you are unable to interact with an object then you are unable to change or destroy that object. The question then becomes, “what strategies can be devised that would enhance the possibility of irritating or perturbing these systems? Under what conditions is it possible to interact with another system?” Any political practice that is not asking these questions or aware of these properties of systems simply isn’t serious. Clearly protests of this sort aren’t doing anything. Are there other forms of protest that could produce a difference? For example, what if the protestors did something like Mel has suggested and protested on highways? Protesting on highways would shut down commerce and travel, perhaps forcing other social systems such as the media system, the Wall Street trading system, and government to take notice of these voices. What other strategies of this sort are possible? Why have the Wisconsin protests been marginally successful whereas so many others have been all but invisible?