Wednesday, 1 February 2012

"Our loss of the sense of aesthetic unity is an epistemological mistake"

I’ve been thinking about Luhmann and religion at the moment and I have an idea that is probably heretical in terms of rigorous Luhmann scholarship. This is to consider “system” in quasi-religious terms; perhaps as comparable to God.

This is a reading that would require swimming against the stream of interpretation that has Luhmann’s account of Modernity as a sociological one that describes The System of Religion in relation to an increasing secularization of society. That is as a turning away from religion as a means by which to describe the world to forms of social systems that are self-observing and self-describing. Luhmann himself says that the purpose of religion was to deal with the problem of observing the indeterminate complexity of the world and to “transform indeterminable into determinable contingency” (Function of Religion, 1977, pg. 189) and that this function disappears in the functional differentiation of society in Modernity.

However; I’m sure that there is something weird and occult about Luhmann’s “system.” And that his thinking is infused with a form of occult spirituality (albeit a post-human spirituality, perhaps akin to that of Norbert Wiener, who, by the way, was also a pretty weird thinker, as anyone who has read God and Golem Inc. will know.)

There are 3 dimensions to this occult flavour to Luhmann’s work.

One thinks through how Hegelian Geist, or spirit is replaced by “system” in Luhmann’s own account of the development of modern society.

Two concerns how auto-poesis (self-organization) functions as an animating, first cause in his systems (in the later Luhmann at least when he’s drawing on the biological theories of Bateson, Maturana, Varela et al). A spirit, or life-force perhaps inhabits his systems. This is, after all, what Habermas recognized in his critique of Luhmann’s systems theory as meta-biological; that is as relying on a principle of irrational “life” as an organizing principle.

Three follows on from Luhmann’s own enigmatic statements about God such as:
The partner for radical constructivism is therefore not traditional epistemology, but traditional theology… One then easily sees that one still has to distinguish the distinguishing of the distinctions with which observers work and which can be observed in the observations of observers from the indistinct which was once called God and today, if one distinguishes system and environment, is called world, or, if one distinguishes object and cognition reality… This also means that the form of a theory described on the basis of its ability to resolve paradoxes allows for the question about functional equivalents, or, if it presents the paradox of observation as the observer, the question about God,” (from The Society of Society, translated in Moeller, Luhmann Explained.)

Now – I’m not really sure, if I’m honest, if I know what all that means and where I might go with it. But it does seem to mesh with something that Bateson has to say about an aesthetic unity in complex systems (which I’ve quoted below) in relation to spirituality. And this also seems to underwrite my own hunch that at the heart of Luhmann’s own system building is an aesthetic project; and that his is an aesthetic theory.

We have lost the core of Christianity. We have lost Shiva, the dancer of Hinduism whose dance at the trivial level is both creation and destruction but in whole is beauty. We have lost Abraxas, the terrible and beautiful god of both day and night in Gnosticism. We have lost totemism, the sense of parallelism between man’s organization and that of the animals and plants. We have lost even the Dying God.

We are beginning to play with ideas of ecology, and although we immediately trivialize these ideas into commerce or politics, there is at least an impulse still in the human breast to unify and thereby sanctify the total natural world, of which we are.

Observe, however, that there have been, and still are, in the world many different and even contrasting epistemologies which have been alike in stressing an ultimate unity and, although this is less sure, which have also stressed the notion that ultimate unity is aesthetic. The uniformity of these views gives hope that perhaps the great authority of quantitative science may be insufficient to deny an ultimate unifying beauty.
I hold to the presupposition that our loss of the sense of aesthetic unity was, quite simply, an epistemological mistake. I believe that that mistake may be more serious that all the minor insanities that characterize those older epistemologies which agreed upon the fundamental unity.” (Bateson – Mind and Nature, A Necessary Unity, Intro.)

1 comment:

  1. ‘I hold to the presupposition that our loss of the sense of aesthetic unity was, quite simply, an epistemological mistake’

    Hi Francis – its interesting that you mention an ‘epistemological mistake’, I’ve been reading Levi Bryant’s ‘Democracy of Objects’, in which he makes reference to an ‘Epistemic Fallacy’ – emerging from Roy Bhaskars account of the ‘actual’ or ‘foundationalist’ position, where ontological questions are reduced to epistemological questions of access i.e. (the actualist treats only the network and not what the network describes.) Of this Bryant says;

    ‘In short, the epistemic fallacy occurs wherever being is reduced to our access to being. Thus, for example, wherever beings are reduced to our impressions or sensations of being, wherever being is reduced to our talk about being, wherever being is reduced to discourses about being, wherever being is reduced to signs through which being is manifest, the epistemic fallacy has been committed.’

    It does seem that this fallacy or mistake that prioritizes epistemic questions over ontological ones, eliminates the possibility for aesthetic unity at the core of any ontology or first philosophy.

    I wonder if it this epistemic/ontological confusion also manifests in Manuel DeLandas materialist reading of Deleuzes theory of the ‘virtual’, where ‘intensive’ processes of differentiation are hidden under the ‘extensive’ qualities of the actual, i.e. the process of becoming or autopoiesis, forever withdrawn, gives rise to ontological questions, while the sensuous fixed qualities of being give rise to questions of access. And as Deleuze points out, it is the job of the artist (or of an aesthetic theory) to unearth the intensive processes of emergence that are hidden and withdrawn!