Thursday, 24 November 2011

Social Systems in The Wire at: All the Pieces Matter: A Night of The Wire

All the Pieces Matter: A Night of The Wire
 Friday 25th November, 20:00

Admission €5, BYOB
Block T, Smithfield, 1-4 Haymarket, Smithfield Dublin 7

Francis Halsall, NCAD: "Social Systems in The Wire"
Niall Heffernan, UCC: "It's all in the Game: Game Theory in The Wire"
Daniel Fitzpatrick: ""The City as Body in Deadwood and The Wire"
Barry Shanahan, UCD: "Authenticity and Representation in The Wire"

Screening of a Mystery Episode

Followed by Music Inspired by The Wire

My paper is outlined below. I'm going to think about, again, how bodies disrupt the hygiene of Luhmann's sytems.

In this short presentation I discuss how we can use The Wire to think about Niklas Luhmann’s Social Systems Theory.

First, I introduce briefly the main aspects of Luhmann’s account of social systems.

Second, I show how this is demonstrated by the different social systems in The Wire (for example, The Media system, The Legal System, The Economic system etc.).

Third, I look at some examples of characters that migrate between different systems (For example: Stringer Bell, who is studying economics; and Roland ‘Prez’ Pryzbylewski who leaves the police force to become a teacher).

Fourth, my conclusion is that such characters show where Luhmann’s account breaks down. I argue that the figure of the human (quasi-transcendental) body migrates between different systems; and in doing so disrupts their operational hygiene.

The account given by the German Sociologist Niklas Luhmann of modern society is that is that it is comprised of a variety of sub-systems that are operatively closed and functionally distinct from one another. These systems include the economic, legal, scientific, religious, educational, mass media and art systems. These systems are all represented in various ways in The Wire.

As we see in The Wire, each system operates according to its own internal and self-defined codes by which it observes its environment (the world) and re-describes that environment in its own terms. So, for example, the economic system (such as we see in the system of drug dealing and ‘re-ups’ on the corners), observes and re-describes its environment terms of economic value whilst the legal system observes and re-describes its environment in terms of legality and illegality.

It’s the aspect of Luhmann’s description of society that it is functional differentiated toward which the standard criticisms of social systems theory are directed. Three aspects of these criticisms are:

First, that the systems-theoretical account of society reduces it to a number of social systems that are autonomous from one another, and that by virtue of that autonomy not only is no explanation is given for how the systems might interact with one another, but also the role of individual humans in those systems.

Second, that systems theory is radically anti-humanist. There is no place for humans in these systems and systems-theory subordinates the human subject to the systems of society removes human agency from those systems and ignores the inter-subjectivity of sensuous bodies interacting in a shared lifeworld.

Third, that the systems theoretical description of society is radically constructivist. That is it denies the possibility of any concrete social reality outside of the systems of observation. So, whilst the economic system observes in terms of fiscal value, the law system in terms of justice and so on, there is no extra-systemic “reality” to which they are referring.

What this means is that it is not possible, Luhmann argues, to have access to reality that is independent from the observation of that reality; and that observation will always be performed from the perspective of a situated system. He says:

“The question whether it is the world as it is or the world as observed by the system remains for the system itself undecidable. Reality, then, may be an illusion, but the illusion itself is real.”[1]

These 3 points of criticism are clearly interrelated. They form the basis of Habermas’ sustained critique of Luhmann’s systems-theory as a “Technocractic.” That is, one which negated human experience and reduced the production of human meaning to a functional principle within an operational system that instrumentalises the lifeworlds of inter-subjective human meanings. This is, in short, the condition of the characters in The Wire.

[1] Luhmann, ‘Why Does Society Describe Itself as Postmodern?” in William Rasch and Cary Wolfe, Observing Complexity, (University of Minnesota Press, 2000), pg. 37

Monday, 7 November 2011

Last Systems Session - summary

Thanks to all participants for a lively discussion at last week’s seminar discussion. I was particularly pleased that there are quite a few disciplinary positions represented around the table including philosophy, art history, art practice, information studies and so on; this should lead to rich discussions as the seminar develops over the coming months.

At this session we outlined some of the main issues that seemed to be at stake in the discussion. This included some key terms. It was agreed, then, that these would form the central themes for our future conversations around the Prince and the Wolf. This means that we will be able to move away from the central text (and read and talk around the topic) whilst also keeping our focus on the main text.

The main topics that we teased out are listed below. And it was agreed that we would discuss Object/ Relation at the next session (Nov. 23rd). If anyone has comments and suggestions such as those for further reading, then here is the place to post them.

Object/ Relation

Object/ Aggregate


Disciplinary and Discursive Issues: (i) The reception of Speculative Realism in other disciplines (ii) Historical precedents

Metaphysics and Realism

Infinite Regress

Potentiality and Change



Metaphor and Translation