Thursday, 3 May 2012

21st Century Body symposium, London

Very happy to be involved in this which looks like a very interesting event called

The 21st Century Body Symposium

Daryll Forde Seminar Room, Bloomsbury campus, University College London
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.

Niklas Luhmann
2nd Order Cybernetics
Transcendental Philosophy
Social Systems

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


  1. Even though the terminology is different and system’s theory has a different objective and scope, much of your argument reminds me of Foucault’s concept. Is this more from your own reading or is there a link between the two thinkers’ concepts of the body?

    1. Hi Andreas. I think there is potential here, yes, to think of what the implications of Systems Theory are for biopolitics; although this would need to be done with caveats. Not least, as Bateson and Weiner (et al) claim, complexity in systems means that we might need a whole new concept for “life” which is not so anthropocentric or even bio-centric.

      When it comes to Foucault: Luhmann and Foucault don’t refer to each other so any connection would come from any shared intellectual genealogies that they inhabit. Both the advocates and critics of the Luhmann agree that he represents a dramatic move away from anthropocentrism to an account of society which doesn’t focus on human experience or agents; which seems similar to the post-humanism attributed to Foucault. And there are elements of overlap, I think, in terms of the anti-humanism and aestheticisation of discourse that Habermas uses to critique both of them.

      However, based on an initial reading it would be easy to read Luhmann as negating completely the human body. Corporeality, he says, is “theoretically trivial” and has “no social relevance,”

      [“Corporality is and remains a general (and to this extent, theoretically trivial) premise of social life. In other words, the difference between corporality and non-corporeality has (at least for our present societal system) no social relevance. Thus one cannot display corporeality as relevant by opposing it to something else. One can only differentiate it as a specific condition, chance or resource in the formation of social systems. It is then the general and, in specific contexts, also the specific, if not the downright decisive, premise of connective operations.” Niklas Luhmann, Social Systems, trans. Bednarz Jr & Baeker, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996) pg. 247]

      and “social systems are not composed of psychic systems, let alone of bodily human beings – which would seem to make the link between them more tenuous.

      That said; I’m interested in doing such a thing (even if this means to read Luhmann somewhat against the grain of his reception as an anti-humanist.) To do so would look at Luhmann in relation to a tradition of phenomenology and transcendental philosophy which are traditions that also have relevance to Foucault I think. On the one hand my thesis is that Luhmann adopts certain phenomenological tropes; for example his systems are intentional and transcendental. On the other I also argue that this opens up a critique of systems theory couched in terms of embodiment. I argue for the significance of the body as a transcendental agent that interrupts and migrates between autonomous systems. This suggests that there is political potential in the embodied/ aesthetic subject – and that does, indeed, sound Foucauldian.

      What did you have in mind?