Just recently I found a young guy’s passport on the street and thought that the most sensible thing to do was contact the embassy of his country directly, explain that it had been found, and then send it to them. All of which I did and then thought nothing more if it.
A few days later the following email arrived (I’d left my card in the package) which I've cut and pasted directly here:
“Hi Dr Francis,
How is the life?
I am really happy for your kindness. I really appreciate that! I'd like to thank personally and give a little gift to you. Would I might meet up you next week where you work (National College)? Let me kow when is possible, ok?
I wanna see you. I was going to see my girlfriend in London, on the way to the airport the passaport fell down from my jacket, fortunately you found it but my girlfriend didnt believe that and we just broke up. That is the living! In addition, I'm very glad because my mother will arrive next week and we are going to travel for 15 days. Probably, if you havent found it, the trip couldnt be possible!
I dont know you yet but I am sure you are a woderful person.
[Name](If you like brazilian stuffs, my mother will arrive on friday, then we can meet that day) :)”(sic)
I turned down the chance to meet by making some excuse and the last I heard from him was a follow up message.
“Hello Dr Francis,
One more time, THANKS A LOT. I wish all the positive energy in your life. Have a good work!
All the best for your!
I’ve been thinking about this since and as to why I found the whole experience so touching and revealing.
The email itself is a micro-masterpiece of empathy and compact storytelling - “my girlfriend didnt believe that and we just broke up. That is the living!”
And it’s astounding how much it revealed. One could quickly work out his age, hair and eye colour, how long he was going to stay in the country (from an attached student visa) and so on from the passport, but the note tells a much deeper story. It seems to disclose an entire system of relations that exist, for the most part, outside of my own network. This is a system that has an almost completely different rhythm to mine, yet one that can touch me. We can, through this fragment, glimpse another intentional horizon as it, briefly, interpenetrates our own. And from this one can move outwards to imagine a whole world populated with other such little epiphanies and minor narratives.
Luhmann describes this in his characteristically dry and wry way as Interpenetration, that is:
“Interpenetration exists when [penetration] occurs reciprocally, that is when both systems enable each other by introducing their already-constituted complexity into each other. In penetration one can observe how the behaviour of the penetrating system is co-dertermined by the receiving system (and eventually proceeds aimlessly and eratically outside this system, just like ants that have lost their ant hill.) In interpenetration, the receiving system also reacts to the structural formation of the penetrating system, and it does so in a twofold way, internally and externally.”[Art as a Social System, trans. Bednarz jr/ Baecker, pg. 213]
In Luhmann’s model consciousness is a psychic system and thus like every other system. That is, it is operatively closed to its environment and other systems. What it does is observe, or be irritated by, other systems. His description of communication is that it doesn’t happen between systems, but inside them. Communication is an occurrence, specific to a particular system, that generates meaning within that system from the unity of a message as well as its communication and reception. In other words, it is not passed over like a parcel (or a passport) but rather generated by the internal operations of each system.
Now, of course, I know next to nothing about this guy. I had a look at his passport photograph, but have since forgotten what he looked like along with his date of birth and even his full name. So it seems that Luhmann is somewhat right. I can only observe and reconstruct this external horizon from within the perspective of my own.
It would be all too easy to read the incident as an exemplar of the forms of contemporary communication which are all mediated at a distance (all the transactions took place by phone, courier and email) and through the abstracted circuits of information exchange, commerce and control.
Yet I still have a nagging feeling that this doesn’t quite capture what happened. I wasn’t only an observer here, but an actor in a network. I didn’t just observe, I was touched too.
At the very least it seems that when systems collide the aftershocks of those interpenetrations crackle, flash and fizz through the circuits long after the moment when they kissed off one another. Perhaps this is what Roy Ascott meant when he said that there is "Love in the Telematic Embrace".
I think the key to this lies in the passport. This was not just an ephemeral instance of communication that emerged internally within different systems but a physical thing that was passed between systems. A gift, perhaps, exchanged without commercial value. Or an object, whose stuff-ness passed between different systems, and existed in both. Disrupting their hygiene.
This is only the beginning of this thought, but my hunch is that bodies are the same. They too migrate between Luhmann’s different and closed systems whilst also disrupting their hygiene. Like sand in Vaseline.