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  • 7/27/2019 Accelerating Luhmann

    1/21, Culture & Society online version of this article can be found at:

    DOI: 10.1177/0263276406067098

    2006 23: 49Theory Culture SocietyOle Bjerg

    Accelerating Luhmann: Towards a Systems Theory of Ambivalence

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    The TCS Centre, Nottingham Trent University

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    Accelerating LuhmannTowards a Systems Theory of Ambivalence

    Ole Bjerg

    Our analysis has given no indication whatsoever that sometime during thiscentury, and presumably during its second half, an epoch break has occurredregarding the system of society, which would justify claiming a transformationfrom a modern to a postmodern society. (Luhmann, 1997: 1143)1

    IN LUHMANNS systems theory we do not find a concept of post-modernity.2 The reason for this is the very obvious one that Luhmanndoes not recognize society as being postmodern, hence there is no needfor a concept of postmodernity. Luhmann does indeed agree with the propo-nents of postmodernism that the time we live in is permeated by a certainkind of paradoxicality. He believes, however, that this paradoxicality isalready adequately incorporated in systems theorys description of contem-porary society as consisting of a multitude of differentiated self-referentialfunction systems. Luhmanns account of modernity is, in his own opinion,already sufficiently equipped to grasp what some people have chosen to callpostmodernism (1997: 11445).

    I believe, however, that Luhmanns dismissal of the problem ofpostmodernity is somewhat too hasty. The paradoxicality that we face inpostmodern society is more radical than just the coexistence of a multitudeof different world descriptions. In postmodern society we see an implosion(or explosion if you like) of meaning, whereby differentiated functionsystems are confronted with complexity in an ambivalent form, which theyare not able to handle without dissolving themselves. This ambivalence notonly questions the validity of a particular systems observations of theenvironment. It puts the systems fundamental possibility of observation,and thereby its very existence, at stake. The aim of this article is to proposea conception of the postmodern condition of social systems compatible with

    the terminology of Luhmanns systems theory.

    Theory, Culture & Society 2006 (SAGE, London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi),Vol. 23(5): 4968DOI: 10.1177/0263276406067098

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    The Possibility and Impossibility of Society

    Luhmanns social theory is constructed around the classical sociologicalquestion: how is society possible? This type of question connects back tothe old Hobbesian problem of order and is later appropriated within thesociological tradition by authors like Durkheim (1893) and Simmel (1908).In an early article, titled precisely Wie ist soziale Ordnung mglich? (Howis Social Order Possible?) (1981), Luhmann poses the question very explic-itly as the central question of the development of social theory. And in themajor work, Social Systems (1984), we find it in a version accommodatinghis by then fully accomplished linguistic turn. To Luhmann, society is nowtantamount to communication systems and, accordingly, the formulation ofthe question becomes: How is communication, that is, coordinated selectiv-ity, possible at all? (Luhmann, 1984: 157). Luhmanns detailed studies of

    particular function systems are also based upon this type of How is Xpossible? question (e.g. 1982: 19, 1990a: 910).

    This article revolves around an inquiry into the other side of thisquestion. By taking the possibility of society as his starting point, Luhmannmakes himself blind to essential features of contemporary society. Thesefeatures may be illuminated by posing the question: How is society imposs-ible? or How is communication as a system impossible? The thesis I wantto propose is that in society, in its postmodern condition, communicationand systems are at the same time both possible and impossible. To fully

    grasp what is going on in postmodern society, theory must be able to operatewith both the possibility and the impossibility of society. In other words, ifsystems theory and the analysis generated from it are to be in step withcontemporary society, it has to incorporate the question: How are systemsimpossible?

    Systems theory does indeed take the improbability of communicationas its basis, i.e., the improbability that a communicative operation will findconnection in a subsequent operation (Luhmann, 1984: 157, 1990c: 96).Probability, however, is a measure for the likelihood of a specific outcome

    within a field of possible outcomes. Improbability indicates a low likelihoodof an outcome, yet it still is possible. Improbability therefore presupposespossibility. Central to the notion of autopoiesis is the notion ofAnschlussfhigkeit3 (Luhmann, 1984: 36). Being autopoietic, systems areintrinsically vested with the ability to connect with subsequent operations,vested with the possibility of their own meaningful reproduction. Thequestion of the impossibility of systems is intended to open an inquiry intothe impossibility of connectivity,Anschlussunfhigkeit.

    The argument will consist of two stages. First a deconstructive critique

    exposing those problems or obstacles in systems theory, which make it blindto certain features of function systems in their postmodern condition. And,second, a reconstructive stage attempting to incorporate this critique intosystems theory, enabling it to grasp both the modern and the post incontemporary society.

    50 Theory, Culture & Society 23(5)

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    The Problem of Complexity

    A central component if not the central component of systems theory isthe distinction between system and environment. A system, according toLuhmann, is only possible as one side of this distinction (1984: 176). Thedifference between system and environment is furthermore constituted by adifference in gradients of complexity between environment and system(1984: 1815). We may speak of a drop in complexity (Komplexitts-geflle). The capacity of systemic self-reproduction hereby consists in theability to reduce the complexity that is present in the environment. Reduc-tion of complexity is carried out in a process where the system selects andactualizes potential observations in the environment. Complexity works asa generator for system creation and Luhmann speaks of a complexitypressure (1990b: 68) whereby the system is being forced to select (1984:

    25) by the surplus of possible observations in the environment. But forcomplexity to function as a catalyst for the creation and reproduction ofsystems, we must assume that complexity in the form of potential observa-tions is presentprior to the system, that is, prior to the actualization of theobservation (for an exposition of this problem see Habermas, 1971: 153). Ifthe environment complexity only comes into being with the systems obser-vation of the environment, it cannot function as the compelling force behindthe creation of the system (for a discussion on this topic see Bjerg, 2000).Neither will it make sense to ascribe a complexity-reducing function to the

    system, since then the system would have first produced the complexity thatit later reduces. It would be like a pyromaniac fireman who puts out a firethat she herself has started. So Luhmann has to work with the assumptionof an environment, which is in some way complex an sich.

    As will be demonstrated, it does n