Great conference in Liverpool and it was a pleasure to contribute to Robert Jackson’s thoughtfully convened panel (see his report here). His own paper and Charlie Gere’s were excellent and a good discussion followed involving Levi Bryant who is using Luhmann in his own way in an Object Orientated Ontology context.
This is the rough version of the conclusion to my paper (with quotations included). The first half was a brief introduction to Luhmann, so I’ve left it out here. My main arguments are that System can be thought of as: (i) a non-human but non-divine transcendental ground of the world (ii) a form of intentionality that is non-human; an Alien or Occult Intentionality which is, ultimately, unknowable.
The process of secularization of modernity comes about from the move to a functionally differentiated society. The functional differentiation of society in modernity leads to a loss of reference grounded in a transcendental reality. As Luhmann says:
“Self-referential autonomy on the level of individual societal subsystems was first established in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Previously, the religious positioning of the world occupied this functional site. Perhaps one can say that the reference to God intended in all experience and action functioned as the secret self-reference of the societal system. One said, perhaps, that without god’s help no work could succeed. Societal as well as moral demands were fixed thereby. But the religious semantics was not formulated as society’s self-reference; it was (and still is) formulated as other-reference, as transcendence.” (Social Systems, p. 461)
The function of religion in premodern society was to offer a solution to the problem of observing the indeterminate complexity of the world. The world appears as a meaningless chaos of entropy and utter contingency (that is, it could always be otherwise). However, the religious system, with is binary code of immanence/ transcendence, ensures that this chaos is neg-entropic; this is, is observable and can be meaningful. Tropes such as God and The Sacred thus functioned to deal with the paradox of the unobservable and to: “transform indeterminable into determinable contingency” (Function of Religion, p. 189)
The System of Religion, thus, guaranteed the transcendental conditions of the world. God offered a guarantee of the world as a unity of being. It was a divine absolute that underwrote a totality of relations.
But, as Luhmann argues the world is never graspable as a totality because any observation [Beobachtung] of the world is always partial. The world is an undifferentiated totality; an unmarked state that can only be observed within a system through the marking of differentiation and drawing of distinctions.
Even if everything could be observed this would still occlude the observation of the observation; hence the blind-spot in observation. In theological terms this blind spot was occupied by god – who played the role of a positionless observer that could observe the totality of all relations including their own observation. God was both part of the world and able to observe it.
This function, however, disappears in modernity when society becomes functional differentiated into a number of autonomous and operatively closed sub-systems (such as the money system, the media system, the legal system, the science system and so on) none of which has priority over the other. Hence, in modernity, a transcendental condition of the world is lost. This resonates with similar arguments made by both Lyotard in Postmodern Condition regarding the loss of contextualizing meta-narratives in modernity brought about by the dominant narrative of science; and Husserl’s earlier analysis of the Crisis of the European Sciences which describes the historical erosion of the loss of a transcendental grounding for knowledge.
Luhmann’s account of this is more wry and . He says:
“God is dead’, they said – and meant the last observer cannot be identified.”(Reality of Mass Media, p. 119)
Hence: my first claim that in terms of observation Luhmann seems to be suggesting that the system/environment distinction occupies a place once filled by God; that is as an expression of The Absolute in which the totality of relations in the world are observable from a positionless position.
In doing so he also draws a direct parallel between the radical constructivism of his own systems-theoretical approach and certain theological concerns. For example he talks of a “holy trinity” in modernity of God, World, Reality as functional equivalents of Totality, The Absolute or The Real. He states:
“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,”
And so we return to the question of whether...undifferentiated [differenzlose] (and therefore: paradoxical) concepts are necessary. The traditional concept of God acted as an attracter for and thereby absorbed this question. For some, this may suffice. Without committing ourselves, we wish to present three further concepts that could, very faintly, resemble the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. We will speak of World to designate the unity of the difference between system and environment. We will speak of Reality to designate the unity of the difference between knowledge and object. We will speak of Meaning to designate the unity of the difference between actuality
and possibility. All these concepts are indifferent [differenzlos] in the sense that they include their own negation.”
(Luhmann, Erkenntnis als Konstruktion, 41–2. quoted in Rasch, ‚Luhmann’s Ontology’)
So; system appears as a non-human but non-divine ground for the transcendental. But this is a transcendental that eludes total observation perhaps resonating with Zizek’s discussions of a “Less Than Nothing.”
My second conclusion points to a weirder, occult reading of Luhmann. This runs counter to standard receptions of his work in which he is cast as an arch-instrumentalist and his sociology as a post-modern cynical one.
As already mentioned, neo-cybernetics is a source for systems theory. This is seen particularly in his later work (from the 1980s onwards) when he’s influenced in particular by Gregory Bateson’s cybernetic biology and Maturana and Varela’s evolutionary biology. This lead to the adoption of neo-cybernetic vocabularies in describing the functioning of systems; and Habermas’ celebrated criticism of Luhmann’s systems theory was that it: “effects a shift in thought from metaphysics to metabiology” (Juergen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, p 372). For example systems are complex (as opposed to complicated) and non-linear.
In quasi-biological terms, systems are autopoietic (that is self-organising.) For a system to be autopoietic means that its reproduction and perpetuity is sustained by its own internal operations through which it reduces the complexity of its environment.
This means that the operations of a system are not as rational as might have first appeared. They are, for example, not predictable.
One consequence of this is that it is not possible to “steer” society through rational activities; there are limits to human interventions in social systems precisely because systems are autonomous and operatively closed. Hence forms of intersubjectivity grounded in collective rationality become impossible.
Autopoesis (that is self-organization), thus, functions as an animating, first cause in his systems. This is, after all, Habermas’ complaint that Luhmann’s systems theory relies on a principle of irrational “life” as its organizing principle.
Systems, thus, demonstrate a purposiveness but one that is non-rational. It is not available to human reason and is not subject to human steering. In other words it is a form of intentionality that is non-human; an Alien or Occult Intentionality which is, ultimately, unknowable.
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