Sorry about the flurry of posts over the last couple of days. This often happens when I’m grading. At any rate, one of the key theses of Luhmann’s autopoietic systems theory is that systems distinguish themselves from an environment. This is necessary for systems to exist. The environment is always more complex than the system, so there can’t be any one-to-one mapping between system and environment. The environment, of course, is whatever is outside the system. A number of claims are related to this:

1) It is the system that draws the distinction between system and environment: The distinction between system and environment does not exist in the environment of the system. Rather it exists only in and for the system that draws the boundary (in a previous post I referred to this boundary as the “membrane” or “film” of a system. Systems define their own boundaries. These boundaries aren’t out there in the world. A number of things follow from this:

1a) The distinction between system and environment is self-referential: This in two senses. First, insofar as the distinction between system and environment is drawn by the system, the distinction necessarily refers to the system in being drawn (this is a weird ontological condition where the condition for an autopoietic system comes from the system itself!). Second, the distinction between system and environment is therefore necessarily paradoxical. Because the distinction between system and environment does not exist in the environment of the system, and because the distinction between system and environment is necessarily inside and outside each system (the paradox of all boundaries), the status of the distinction is necessarily paradoxical. Every system, Luhmann contends, must find ways of navigating this paradox. Que connections to deconstruction here. Additionally, there’s all sorts of fertile connections with Hegel’s account of Dasein in part 1 of The Science of Logic here. I’ve written about this before, but not in this connection.

read on!

1b) Self-reference and other-reference takes place in the system, not outside it: “Self-reference” here refers to operations in a system where the system refers to itself (for example, me thinking about myself). “Other-reference” refers to operations in a system that refer to something outside the system (for example, me perceiving my cat). The paradox is that both operations take place in the system. They are both self-referential. The Other-reference only exists for the system and in the system. This is part of what it means to say that objects are “operationally closed”.

2) Systems must maintain the distinction between system and environment: The boundary between system and environment is not given once and for all, but rather is in a state of constant peril from moment to moment. At each moment in an object’s existence, this boundary or membrane threatens to break down or fall apart. As a consequence, many of the ongoing operations of a system revolve around maintaining or reproducing the boundary between system and environment across time. Think about how Freud discusses the “reality principle”. He does not describe reality as a mind touching independent entities in the world. Rather Freud proceeds from the premise of operational closure (he’s thoroughly autopoietic in the Project essay where he develops this). Freud says that reality (for a system) is 1) a pleasure that can be repeated, and more importantly, 2) that requires a detour to be attained. For Freud, the ability for a subject to distinguish between reality and hallucination is entirely on the side of the subject, not a matter of veridical statements about the world. The subject comes to treat hallucination as hallucination because when the infant imagines candy the imagined candy doesn’t provide satisfaction. “Reality”, by contrast, turns out to be deferred pleasure. The infant comes to know “real” candy is “real” because it must go through all sorts of additional activities (which require time) to attain the candy: whining to mom and dad, walking across the room to the candy bowl, etc. For Freud the distinction between reality and hallucination is drawn purely through events taking place inside the subject.

Moreover, these distinctions/operations that produce the boundary must be repeated throughout the life of the system. They aren’t established once and for all. Returning to Freud, take the example of someone who has something extremely fortunate happen to them that requires no effort (deferral) on their part at all. Such a person wonders momentarily whether this is really happening. The fortunate event takes on a dreamlike, hallucinatory quality. Somewhere Freud suggests that if all of our wishes were satisfied simultaneously we would collapse into psychosis because in the absence of deferral we would no longer know how to maintain the boundary between inside and outside, system and environment. Every system devises operations that reproduce the distinction between system and inside. As a consequence:

1a) All systems use “codes” to reproduce the distinction between inside and outside: Codes are rules or schemata that distinguish between self-reference and other-reference and that distinguish between inside and outside. Every system requires such codes to maintain their distinctions. “You’re with us (self-reference) or against us (other-reference)!” However, take care. Remember all distinctions are self-referential and paradoxical. When a system talks about what’s not inside itself (what belongs to the environment), the system is talking about itself. Hence the example of the closeted gay guy that’s a homophobe. His dark fascination with homosexuals is a reflection of his own desire.

3) The elements of a system do not exist in the strong environment of a system: This is Luhmann’s most radical and disturbing hypothesis. Systems constitute their own elements. These elements don’t exist ready-made in the environment of a system. I can’t emphasize enough how disturbing this claim is. If it is true that societies are systems, then it follows that they produce their own elements and relations among their elements. If it is true that they constitute their own elements, then it follows that societies are not composed of persons. Societies are composed of whatever elements they constitute (for Luhmann communications and roles). Thus, for example, a classroom is not composed of people, but of students and a professor. The people are in the environment of this system. As a consequence:

3a) People cannot communicate with societies: Because societies are systems, they are operationally closed and self-referential like any other system. If it’s true that societies are composed of communications and roles, then only communications can communicate with roles… Person’s cannot communicate nor communicate with societies. At best they can perturb societies. Yet these perturbations will always be filtered through the various codes or schemata governing operations in these larger scale objects. Just as the mind of Freud’s infant doesn’t directly encounter or touch candy in the operations of the reality principle, persons never directly touch social systems and social systems never directly touch systems. The one cannot exist without the other, but both are necessarily withdrawn from one another. This has massive consequences for how we analyze just about everything.