Search Results for 'Luhmann'

sbimagesThis is more a random thought than anything else, but the more I understand what Laruelle is up to with his non-philosophy, the more I feel his thought has a profound affinity with the work of Niklas Luhmann.  Put very crudely, Laruelle begins from the premise that all philosophy begins with a decision that allows it to observe the world philosophically, but to which it is constitutively blind.  The point, if I understand it, is that the decision arises not from the world, but rather from the philosophy.  The non-philosopher, as it were, attempts to observe these decisions to investigate how they structure the “world” investigated by the philosophy.

Proceeding from Spencer-Browns calculus of forms, this is exactly where Luhmann begins in his “sociology”.  All observation, Spencer-Brown argues, requires a distinction to be possible.  Here it’s important to be careful.  “Observation”, for Spencer-Brown and Luhmann is not an empirical terms referring to the five senses and measurements, but is a formal and functional structure.  Spencer-Brown begins his Laws of Form with the imperative “first draw a distinction”, which is a structure similar to Laruelle’s theory of decision.  With the drawing of a distinction, a space is cleaved in two.  This space cleaved in two is what Spencer-Brown calls a “form” and is the unity of a marked space and an unmarked space.  With the distinction it now becomes possible to observe or indicate what falls under the unmarked space, e.g., white males (marked space) vs everything else (unmarked space).

blindspot-940x625The key point for Luhmann is that the distinction itself is always invisible for the observer that uses the distinction to observe because of its functional nature.  One can observe a marked space through a distinction or observe a form/distinction, but cannot observe through a distinction and observe the distinction one uses to observe or make indications.  And, of course, if one opts to observe a distinction, they must make yet another distinction to observe that distinction which will itself be invisible to the observer and have its own unmarked space.  At any rate, Luhmann refers to the distinction that allows an observer to observe a marked state as the blind spot of the observer.  Every observation implies a blind spot, a withdrawn distinction from which indications are made, that is not visible to the observer the observes.  The eye cannot see itself seeing.

Despite the formal and highly abstract nature of his work, if Luhmann calls himself a sociologist rather than a philosopher, then this is because his aim, like Laruelle’s,  is to “observe the observer”.  “Observing the observer” consists in investigating how observers draw distinctions to bring a world into relief and make indications.  Were, for example, Luhmann to investigate philosophy from a “sociological” perspective, his aim wouldn’t be to determine whether Deleuze or Rawls or Habermas, etc., was right.  Rather, he would investigate the distinctions they draw to bring the world into relief in particular ways unique to their philosophy.  In other words, he would investigate the various “decisional structures” upon which these various ways of observing are based.

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.

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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.

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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.

Among the interesting observations Luhmann makes in The Reality of the Mass Media is that of the manner in which the mass media construct a world. Here it’s necessary to proceed with caution. The point is not that the mass media produce the earth. Rather, the point is that the mass media construct a social world that becomes the horizon of how we relate to one another and the earth. As Luhmann writes,

…the contribution of all three forms of mass media communication [reporting, entertainment, and advertising]– and this is where they converge –can be said to be in creating the conditions for further communication which do not themselves have to be communicated in the process This applies to being up-to-date with one’s information just as it does to being up-to-date culturally, as far as judgments about values, ways of life, what is in/what is out of fashion are concerned. Thanks to the mass media, then, it is also possible to judge whether it is considered acceptable or provocative to stand apart and reveal one’s own opinion. Since the mass media have generated a background reality which can be taken as a starting point, one can take off from there and create a profile for oneself by expression personal opinions, saying how one sees the future, demonstrating preferences etc.

The social function of the mass media is thus not to be found in the totality of information actualized by each (that is, not on the positively valued side of their code) but in the memory generated by it. For the social system, memory consists in being able to take certain assumptions about reality as given and known about in every communication, without having to introduce them specially into communication and justify them. (RM, 65)

Put in Heideggerese, Luhmann is alluding to the manner in which the mass media produces “das Man” or the “everybody knows” that underlies shared social reality. This is not something that can be assumed to be there at the outset, but is rather something that must be produced or built. This das Man, in its turn, renders possible new forms of social relation. To see this consider two villages, existing prior to mass media, existing hundreds of miles apart. Here spatial difference is crucial. Under conditions of spatial distance such as this there’s no possibility of a world. The reason for this is that flows of communication are highly constrained in time due to these features of distance.

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In my view, the best place to begin reading Luhmann is The Reality of the Mass Media. There Luhmann gives an exceedingly clear formulation of the basics of his autopoietic sociological systems theory that is also valuable by virtue of illustrating how it can be put to work in the analysis of a particular social system: the media system. From there the next place to go is Theories of Distinction, where you’ll get Luhmann’s account of how distinctions render observations possible (distinction, for Luhmann, is much like the transcendental in Kant) and discussions of constructivism, blind-spots in observation, etc. With these two texts under your belt, you’ll be in a position to tackle Luhmann’s exceedingly abstract, formal, and difficult opus (the one translated anyway), Social Systems.

I won’t go into all the details of what a system is here (and recall that, for me, objects are either allopoietic or autopoietic systems), but will instead simply outline some salient features of the media system. For Luhmann, no system can exist unless it draws a distinction between itself and its environment (Social Systems, 16). The system/environment distinction is therefore always the primordial distinction that precedes any other distinctions. There must be a boundary between system (or in my language, object) and environment. Moreover, the environment of a system is always more complex than the system itself. Put differently, there is never a one-to-one mapping between system and environment. Rather, any relation a system entertains to its environment is always selective.

This point about selectivity can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s theory of fantasy. A fantasy, for Lacan, is not an imaginary scenario where we envision the fulfillment of a wish– such as me imagining what it would be like to burn down the road in a Dodge Challenger –but is rather an answer to the question “what does the Other want, when the Other desire of me?” The desire of the Other is always opaque, enigmatic, polysemous, and riddled with contradictions. In Harman-speak, it is withdrawn. Indeed, it is so withdrawn that not even the Other knows what it desires. Fantasy provides the means of veiling this desire by transforming it into something determinate. In Plague of Fantasies, Zizek argues that fantasy is a shematism between the subject and the Other. Fantasy is a way of structuring the signals that we receive from the Other into a determinate message. In Seminar 6, Desire and its Interpretation, Lacan compares fantasy to a window frame through which we view the world (the emphasis on the fact that something is always “out-of-field” whenever we look through a window).

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Niklas Luhmann on some basic principles of systems theory. (very good despite its brevity)

Niklas Luhmann on the function of theory in relation to science.

Culture_Matrix_Code_corridorIn place of the conspiracy theories of classical metaphysics, Adam Miller, following Latour, proposes an experimental metaphysics.  According to Miller, what is the cardinal sin of classical metaphysics?  On the one hand, it is reductive.  When we are in the grips of a theory, we believe we have mastered the phenomena.  Our metaphysics is based on a distinction between appearance and reality, where appearances are the buzzing confusion of all things that exist in the world and reality is the finite set of principles or laws that both explain those phenomena and that are the grounds of the phenomena.  Here I cannot resist a hackneyed reference to The Matrix.  What is it that distinguishes Neo from everyone else?  Unlike the rest of us that see only appearances– the steak that we are eating, the clothing we are wearing, the car we’re driving in, other people, etc –Neo sees the reality that governs the appearances.  He sees the code that governs appearances.  Neo is the Platonic hero par excellence.  Where everyone else sees shadows on the cave wall taking them to be true reality, Neo has escaped the cave, seen the true reality, and now knows the combinatorial laws that govern all the appearances.  It is this that allows him to perform such extraordinary feats, for like the scientist that has unlocked the secrets of nature, he can manipulate that code to his advantage.

main-qimg-0d8cd712304a3f11bd098c637db0247fThis is the fantasy of classical metaphysics and is what Miller refers to as a conspiracy theory.  The classical metaphysician believes he has unliked the code that governs the appearances and, for this reason, no longer has to attend to the appearances.  Alfred Korzybski famously said “the map is not the territory”.  The classical metaphysician is like a person who gets a map and thinks that because they have a map they have mastered the territory; so much so that they don’t have to consult the territory at all.  In this instance, the map, the model, comes to replace the territory altogether.  The map becomes the reality and the territory itself, such that the territory no longer enters the picture.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons people often find philosophers so frustrating.  We have our models, we have our metaphysics, and we debate back and forth about the finer points of these respective maps, yet the territory doesn’t enter the picture.  The map has become more real than the territory (isn’t this what Lauruelle is diagnosing in his non-philosophy:  the manner in which the philosophy posits its own reality).

It is in this sense that classical metaphysics is reductive:  the map comes to replace the territory such that the territory contributes nothing.  Indeed, the territory comes to be treated as an epiphenomenon.  Consider the following equations:


lemon/combinations of atoms

The latter might be an equation from Lucretian atomism.  That thesis states that the lemon is explained by combinations of atoms, both the shapes of those atoms and how they are combined.  Now, in the Lucretian framework– as much as it pains me to say so, given my deep love of Lucretius –we can ask whether the lemon contributes anything?  Isn’t it the atoms that do all of the work?  Suppose we take a neo-atomist.  Someone says it was the baseball that broke the window.  Our neo-atomist smugly responds that that is a folk metaphysical explanation.  Rather, what really happened is that one combination of atoms interacted with another set of atoms producing a new combination of atoms.  Baseballs and windows contribute nothing.  They are fictions.

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Working notes on an article on examples I’m working on:

I would like to know what it means to think from the example.  In the university discourse, the example is always a particular of a universal.  It exemplifies the universal and is only of interest insofar as it exemplifies the universal.  A particular is an individual that exemplifies or embodies the features of the universal.  It is in this sense that the example becomes an ornament.  Since the universal already contains all of the essential content, pointing at a triangle does nothing more than allow the student to discern, in the flesh, a specific case of the universal.  “See here, it has three sides.”  In the university discourse, the example, as a particular, serves a dual function.  On the one hand, the particular allows the student to discern the essential features that define the essence of the universal (a triangle is a three-sided figure).  However, on the other hand, the particular only functions to illustrate the universal by way of also indicating the accidental or the non-essential.  “This triangle is made of wood.  That triangle is made of steel.  This triangle is graphite on a piece of paper.  This triangle is equilateral, while that triangle is scalene.  Despite these differences, they’re all triangles.”  The particularity of the individual lies in it embodying what is invariant in the universal despite its individuality.  The university discourse is essentially classificatory.  It aims by making sure that everything is placed in its proper box or category.  Let us never forget that there’s a place for the university discourse.

Aside:  Let us call theory done in this way imperial theory.  An imperial theory is a theory that only acknowledges cases or examples insofar as they exemplify the universal comprehension of the theory.  This was Deleuze’s criticism of Hegel and his “insipid monocentering” (the same could be said of Kierkegaard’s criticism of Hegel).  Hegel endlessly finds the same thing again and again, revealing that he is incapable of thinking the singularity of the singular.  This attitude towards the singular is already foreshadowed in his critique of sense-certainty in the open of the Phenomenology.  We wish to say that everything begins with the individual, with the “this-here”, with this specific triangle, only to discover that we can only ever speak the universal (cf. Hyppolite).  However, lest we make Hegel out to be the bad guy, we must also remember Badiou’s critique of Deleuze and the sheer monotony of his work.  Here we must raise the question of whether this critique is valid.  As Deleuze argues in DR, it might be that the singular always erases itself in its actualization or movement into extensity.  This would also be why a philosophy that begins from existence or the singular must always proceed based on an encounter.  (In this connection, it bears recalling Derrida on how the “origins” are always effaced and erased).  Another instance of imperial theory would be Luhmann, who always and everywhere finds the same thing in the phenomena he investigates.  The individual, the singular, is always erased in the name of the theory.

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Perhaps it’s something of a cliche to speak of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave.  “Yes, yes, we’ve all heard of the Allegory of the Cave!  We all learned about the Allegory of the Cave in our Intro to Philosophy courses!”  That’s true.  I’m sorry to speak of it again.  I can’t help it.  I think the Allegory of the Cave is a good myth.  What’s a good myth?  A good myth is a time machine.  By that, I don’t mean that it takes us back to the past like the Delorean in Back to the Future.  No, a good myth is a myth that is able to exceed its historical horizon, explode the context in which it’s inscribed, and travel into the future.  A good myth is a myth that is open to endless interpretation; which is to say that a good myth is a myth that is able to speak across history.  A good myth is slippery and without a determinate signified.  For that reason, it can take on many signifieds.  What did Plato think?  I don’t care.  He wrote a good myth and therefore wrote a myth capable of going beyond Plato.

We know the story.  The prisoners have been in the cave since birth.  They don’t know they’re prisoners.  Behind them the guards walk back and forth in front of a fire with different shapes of things on long poles.  The shapes cast shadows on the cave wall.  The prisoners think the shadows are reality.  After all, they’ve never seen anything else, right?  Clearly there is only one possible interpretation of the Allegory of the Cave.  The fire is obviously capitalism.  The guards are most certainly the journalists, pundits, editors, and politicians.  And the shadows on the cave wall are television news, newspapers, social media, and the political blogs.  The shadows are images and images are copies of something else.  Plato was most definitely diagnosing the times in which we live.  As a careful reader of Niklas Luhmann– especially Luhmann’s Reality of the Mass Media –and other media theorists, he knew very well that it is the mass is our primary access to reality and constructs our sense of reality.  Think about it.  How do you know that North Korea exists?  Have you been there?  Probably not.  You saw it on a map or a globe (an image).  You read about it (an image).  You heard someone who says they’ve seen it talk about it (an image).  You saw a photograph or film footage (an image).  You watched a documentary on the forgotten war (images again).  The vast majority of your beliefs about the world are through images.  That’s your reality.  That’s my reality.

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