On a Species of Origin: Luhmann's Darwin
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On a Species of Origin:
Luhmann's Darwin

Introduction: Of Beginnings, Boundaries, and Bogeymen

In his obituary of Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998)—a remarkable necrological vignette that reads like a cross between Marc Anthony's funerary farewell to Caesar and W. H. Auden's poem on the death of William Yeats—Friedrich Kittler described Luhmann as a Herr (in the double sense of master and gentleman) who "spoke from further away than I have ever heard anyone speak."1 This succinctly captures the most widespread image of the deceased: Luhmann the Distant, Luhmann the Remote, Luhmann the Unfathomable—an inscrutable, immensely erudite, posthumanist sphinx posing questions that demanded far more important answers than "Man." This perception also underlies the more negative view of Luhmann as a conformist technocrat, whose conceptually fortified slacker theory aims to convince people of the uselessness of any kind of critical activism designed to disturb the self-sufficient circles of functionally differentiated social systems. And now that he can no longer defend himself, Luhmann is in danger of suffering the ultimate fate that German fame holds in store: he is on the verge of being turned into something resembling the old Goethe—a marble-encased Olympian of [End Page 305] glacial imperturbability far removed from the lukewarm messiness of real life.

In the following I will present a somewhat different version. The Luhmann I have in mind is a far more adversarial thinker, closely and polemically engaged with opposing views that are indispensable for understanding his arguments, although (or precisely because) they have been subtly distorted. Readers baffled by the more impenetrable passages of Luhmann's self-appointed "supertheory"2 should, therefore, not ask themselves "Does this make any sense?" but rather: "In order for this to make sense, who has to be wrong? Where is the bogeyman?" As opposed to the more established image of the refined master, I will present Luhmann as a bull who actively seeks out and dismantles china shops, but who is able to muffle the noise under an imposing conceptual apparatus. Though this may not sound very adulatory, I have to emphasize that I am dealing with only one specific point (albeit an important one) of a very comprehensive theory that, to my mind, has no equal in terms of sophistication and self-reflexivity. Of course no one should be forced to read Luhmann, and nobody's life will be shortened by not reading him, but the question remains whether those who profess to work at the intersection of the humanities and natural sciences can afford to ignore him altogether. There are other theories that are mindful of the cognitive and epistemological quandaries opened up by quantum mechanics, cybernetics, the biology of the observer, or George Spencer Brown's Laws of Form,3 but there arguably is no other that has made this awareness such an integral part of its modus operandi:

Given that nature can only be observed experimentally (that is, selectively), Luhmann's social science, too, is supposed to operate in experimental fashion. [End Page 306] Much like quantum physics, it hides its instruments of observation in that which is observed. Luhmann's theory is completely on the cutting edge of the successful natural sciences precisely because he programmatically introduces the measuring instruments into that which is measured. As regards their basic methods, quantum mechanics and solid-state physics operate exactly like Luhmann, with the difference, however, that they may at best produce an improved silicon chip but not an entire society of society.4

The net result of this inspired marriage of inbuilt self-reflection and conceptual experimentalism is that (together with Michel Foucault) Luhmann offers modern theory's most potent mix of immunization and disenchantment: you may not always want what they have to offer, but you certainly no longer trust what others have sold you before. And just as was the case with Foucault, the principal achievement is not the creation of a grand theory machine, but the way in which it forces us to drastically reconsider, and occasionally jettison, some of its well-known components—for instance, "subject," "action," "power," "communication," "love," and other damaged conceptual goods. What the historian...