The 21st Century Body Symposium
18th May, 2012, 9am to 6pm, followed by a drinks reception
Here is my abstract for a paper called Irritating Social Systems: Luhmann and the Body - which has simplified the complexity of Luhmann's position for the sake of legibility. I'll unpack his position in more detail in the paper.
2nd Order Cybernetics
According to Niklas Luhmann the body seems to almost disappear in modernity. He applies the observations of 2nd order cybernetics to a sociological analysis of social systems. Modern society, he argues, is a system comprised of a number of operatively closed and functionally distinct sub-systems such as economics, science, law, the mass-media and so on. Each system is autonomous and observes the world in its own terms via its internal communications.
Thus, Luhmann’s sociology is generally characterised as a post-human one. That is, one in which the basic unit is not the embodied human subject but rather instances of impersonal communication.
In this paper I challenge this. Having introduced Luhmann’s theory, I then discuss two aspects of relevant to thinking about The 21st Century Body.
(i) I explore how ‘to be human in the 21st century’ means to have ones body fully embedded within (and perhaps subordinate to) complex social systems of communication and control. For Luhmann the human is, after all, just another system (a ‘psychic system’) alongside many others. This would appear to render the embodied human subject redundant in two significant ways. On the one hand it is redundant as the focus of sociological analysis (in other words if we want to understand how society works we must look at its systems and not its bodies.) And on the other hand this seems to negate the possibility of a bio-politics grounded in the agency of such an embodied human subject.
(ii) Against this apparently bleak assessment I argue that the body still has a significant function in social systems. My claim is that the body has the ability to migrate between different systems. Take, for example, the simple act of walking into a shop to buy a packet of cigarettes. This requires a complex negotiation of different systems such as: the economic system (in the transaction); the mass media system (in the advertisments for tobacco I may have seen and perhaps use to inform my choice); the legal system (given the legal status of tobacco) and so on. In all of these negotiations my body not a neutral agent of impersonal communication; it is, after all, my body that the cigarettes will probably damage. Rather, my body engages in, observes and is observed by, different systems at different times.
My conclusion, then, is that the body has a transcendent status in social systems that is important. That is, the body can migrate between social systems and irritate them. In doing so the body can disrupt the hygiene of the apparently impersonal operations of social systems with its gleeful, messy corporality