by Steven Craig Hickman
I’ve been reading Niklas Luhmann’s works for a couple years now and have slowly incorporated many of his theoretical concepts into my own sociological perspective. Along with Zygmut Baumann I find Luhmann’s theoretical framework one of the most intriguing in that long tradition stemming from Talcott Parsons, one of the world’s most influential social systems theorist. Of course Luhmann in later years would oppose his own conceptual framework to his early teacher and friend. Against many sociologists, especially those like Jürgen Habermas who developed and reduced their conceptual frameworks to human centered theories and practices, Luhumann developed a theory of Society in which communications was central. He did no exclude humans per se, but saw that within society humans had over time invented systems of dissemination that did not require the presence of the human element as part of its disseminative practices. We live amid impersonal systems that are not human but machinic entities that communicate among themselves more equitably than to us. Instead of stratification and normative theories codifying out personal relations within society Luhmann advocated a functionalism that dealt with these impersonal systems on their own terms rather than reducing them to outdated theories based on morality and normative practices. For Luhmann we continue to reduce the social to an outdated political and moral dimension that no longer understands the problems of our current predicament. In fact these sociologists do not even know what the problem is, or how to ask the right questions much less what questions to ask.
Luhmann was one of the first, and definitely not the last, sociologists to decenter the human from society. The notion of the social without the human actor was replaced by communications itself. Luhmann himself saw his theories as forming a new Trojan horse: “It had always been clear to me that a thoroughly constructed conceptual theory of society would be much more radical and much more discomforting in its effects than narrowly focused criticisms—criticisms of capitalism for instance—could ever imagine.” His reception in North American academy has been less than underwhelming according to Moeller because of his couching his terminology in the discourse of Habermas and the sociologists of his day in Germany. Over and over Foucault spoke of the conformity to discourse that scholars were forced to inhabit to be read as legitimate sources of scholarship. Yet, as Moeller tells it Luhmann hoped to hide is radical concepts in plain site even if within the discourse of his day: “Luhmann ascribes to his theory the “political effect of a Trojan horse.” – Luhmann openly admits to his attempt to smuggle into social theory, hidden in his writings, certain contents that could demolish and replace dominating self-descriptions, not only of social theory itself, but of society at large.” (Moeller, KL 223)
Recently I’ve been reading Luhmann’s The Reality of Mass Media which was published late in his life in 1996 (i.e., Luhmann died in 1998). I’ve yet to work through his Magnum opus the Theory of Society of which only two volumes – the one on Society (two parts) and one on Religion, were all that remain of his work left unfinished. But this one introduces many of the basic themes of Luhmann’s theoretical framework: the functional differentiation of modern society, the differing formations – law, religion, mass media, etc. – that constitute the communicative operations which enable the differentiation and operational closure of the system in question, reflexive organization – autopoiesis (Maturana) – and second order observation – or, the observation of observation, etc. What interests me in this work is how it touches base with current media theory from McLuhan, Innis, and others, as well as the specific notions surrounding his use of what he termed ‘cognitive constructivism’. Obviously notions of the Mass Media as the purveyor of reality for society hits on the traditions of propaganda, public relations, social constructivism, and all those Kantian notions and traditions from Vico onward that developed theories of how societies invent reality through various systems, myths, ideologies, etc.
Luhmann considered himself a radical “anti-humanist”, not in the sense of some Nietzschean overreaching of the human as an Übermensch, but rather in the form of an inhumanism that decenters the human agency from its primal place in the cosmos as something exceptional, distinct, superior to other creatures, and instead situates him back within the natural realm on equal footing with all beings on this planet and the cosmos. As Moeller observes “a radically antihumanist theory tries to explain why anthropocentrism—having been abolished in cosmology, biology, and psychology—now has to be abolished in social theory. Once this abolition has taken place, there is not much room left for traditional philosophical enquiries of a humanistic sort” (Moeller, 6).
For him theory is develops both anti-foundational and operationally closed systems that are also open to observation of observation; or, second order reflexivity that takes into account a nontrivial or complex systems, which, being in a system-environment relation, are open for mutual resonance, perturbation, and irritation (Moeller, 7). This brings us to his use of the concept of distinction which, for Luhmann, was neither a principle, nor an objective essence, nor even a final formula (telos), but was instead a “guiding difference which still leaves open the question as to how the system will describe its own identity; and leaves it open also inasmuch as theire can be several view on the matter, without the ‘contexturality’ of self-description hindering the system in it operating (Luhmann, 17).
I have to admit it was Levi R. Bryant in his The Democracy of Objects and on his blog Larval Subjects that I first heard of Niklas Luhmann. In Chapter 4: The Interior of Objects of that book Levi goes into detail about Niklas Luhman and his theories as it relates to his own version of Object Oriented Ontology – or, what he now terms Machine Ontology – Onto-Cartography. In one of his blog posts Laruelle and Luhmann Levi makes an acute observation on Luhmann’s conception of and use of distinction. Comparing it with Laruelle’s notion of distinction as decision in which all philosophies as compared to non-philosophy start with a decision “that allows it to observe the world philosophically”. Non-philosophy instead of starting with a decision instead observes these distinctions used by philosophers in understanding how they actually structure the world the philosopher describes. Be that as it may what Luhmann refers to, according to Levi, as the distinction is that it “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.” Take for example my friend R. Scott Bakker’s notion of the Blind Brain Theory in which we are blind to the very processes that shape and form our very thoughts and reality, yet we observe in a fashion that neglects this fact and never knows of this blindness and believes it has all the information it needs to understand and communicate effectively about itself and reality. What intrigues both Laruelle and Luhmann is this second order reflection of the observer observing the observer. As Levi explains it:
“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.
In another work on Luhman Niklas Luhman’s Modernity: The Paradoxes of Differentiation in a chapter marked Injecting Noise into the System Rasch notes that contingency a concept that Luhmann used often meant quite simply, the “fact that things could be otherwise that they are; and things can be otherwise than they are because “things” are the result of selection” (Rasch, 52).3 This notion of selection is if not equivalent to making a distinction at least necessarily a qualification of that concept. All systems are observable because all systems are formed by distinctions, and these distinctions operate on the elements in a system whether that system is conscious or not because they operate by distinctions and can decide or choose between alternatives those distinctions establish (Rasch, 52). The information generated by the system being observed is contingent because other distinctions could have been made producing different information based on choice or exclusion; it is also based on an enforced selection because of time constraints, which affords a view onto the complexity of the system being observed thereby producing meaning (Rasch, 53). The chain of complex information observed within this system is the communication of that system.
As Luhmann would observe the moment a system communicates its information that information becomes non-information and cannot be reproduced in the same way again. He makes the observation that in our modern hypermedia infotainment society the observation of news events now occur simultaneously with the events themselves. In an accelerated society one never knows what the causal order is: did the event produce the communication, or did the communication produce the event. It’s as if the future was being produced in a reality machine that communicates our information simultaneously and for all time. The desuturing on history from effective communication is rendering our society helpless in the face of events. More and more we have neither the time to reflect nor the ability to observe, instead we let these autonomous systems do our thinking for us while we sift through the noise of non-information as if it was our reality.
Corporate media in their search for the newsworthy end up generating reproductions of future uncertainties – contrary to all evidence of continuity in the world we know from daily perceptions (Luhmann, 35). Instead of news we get daily reports, repeatable sound bites of events that can be rewired to meet particular ideological needs of the reporters as they convey their genealogy of non-informational blips as if it were news of import. The redundancy of non-informational reports are fed into the stream through a series of categories: sports, celebrities, local and national events, politics, finance, etc. as it reweaves the reality stories of the day through its invisible ideological conveyor belt as if for the very first time. As Luhmann tells us the “systems coding and programming, specialized towards selection of information, causes suspicion to arise almost of its own accord that there are background motives at work” (Luhmann, 38). Corporate media thrives on suspicion, on the paranoia it generates through gender, race, political, religious, national, and global encodings/decodings selected not for their informational content but for their contingent production of future fears.
The smiley faces of corporate reporters provides us with communications that generates a pleasing appearance by which the individuals themselves that cross the media threshold conceal themselves from others and therefore ultimately from themselves. The façade of truth bearing witness becomes the truth of a witness bearing the façade. “The mass media seem simultaneously to nurture and to undermine their own credibility. They ‘deconstruct’ themselves, since they reproduce the constant contradiction of their constative and their performative textual and image components with their own operations (Luhmann, 39). The news media instead of giving us the world as it is provide us with new realities supported by the endless operations of a selective ideological algorithms that filter the vast datamix of information into non-informational contexts presented to the unsuspecting viewers eyes or ears as if it were immediate news rather than the façade of lost information. In a final insight Luhman tells us that no autopoetic system can do away with itself. And in this, too, we have confirmation that we are hoodwinked by a specific problematic related to a system’s code. As he says, the “system could respond with its everyday ways of operating to suspicions of untruthfulness, but not to suspicions of manipulation” (Luhmann, 41). There is always that blind spot in your mind that sees the ideological subterfuge but never notices that you were complicit in feeding the very system that now entraps you. Being blind to its very nature you assume valid information when in fact all you have is the non-informational blips of a cultural matrix out of control. The datahives of capitalism churn away collecting neither news nor truth, but rather the informational bits that make up your onlife for future modes of economic tradecraft even as your panic flesh is made obsolescent just like all other commoditized bits in the lightbins of our global corporatists state(s). Even the Snowden’s of our world are but a trace of a trace lost in the paranoiac ocean of non-information. The secret worlds below the datahive hum away like the remembrance of bees that no longer pollinate. Living in a blipworld we hide from ourselves in endless chatter, noise of noise that means only one thing: the death of our humanity. As Luhmann asks: “How is it possible to accept information about the world and about society as information about reality when one knows how it is produced?” (Luhmann, 122) Knowing that we live in constructed tale which is not narrated by us but by the machinic code of machinic minds what is left of reality, anyway?
1. Moeller, Hans-Georg (2011-11-29). The Radical Luhmann (Kindle Locations 216-218). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.
2. Niklas Luhmann. The Reality of Mass Media. (Stanford University Press: Polity, 2000).
3. William Rasch, Niklas Luhman’s Modernity: The Paradoxes of Differentiation (Stanford University Press, 2000)
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