When he died, Niklas Luhmann left behind scattered notes on a project on “Poetry and Social Theory.” Central to Luhmann’s understanding of the specificity of poetry is his well-known articulation of the autopoietic closure and difference of psychic systems and social systems, consciousness and communication, each operating by means of self-reference and recursivity. It is within the context of this difference that Luhmann understands the significance to poetry of characteristic themes and problems such as incommunicability, ineffability, silence, and so on-themes that reach their high water mark with romanticism. But he understands them specifically within a posthumanist context: that is to say, as expressions not of a psychological or emotional interiority that reveals itself in language (even if only to gesture toward language’s inadequacy), but rather as expressions of a set of differences--most importantly, the difference between communication and perception, which in poetry are “miraculously” made to coincide when the material form of the signifier duplicates the semantics of communication (in familiar devices such as rhyme, rhythm, and so on). Even more interesting and challenging for rethinking the concept of form, however, is the circumstance in which the material form and semantics of the signifier do not coincide-a circumstance insisted upon with particular rigor in the poetry of Wallace Stevens. This essay deploys Luhmann’s concept of form-and more generally, his understanding of art as a social system-to explore Stevens’ poetics, and uses Luhmann’s theory of first- and second-order observation to explain how Stevens’ “romantic modernism” is most rigorous and systematic precisely where it is most insistently confounding and paradoxical.


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pp. 259-276
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