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  • Form without Matter vs. Form as Event*
  • Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (bio)

Matter (abandoned and almost) lost

The occasionally authoritative gestures of Niklas Luhmann’s writing may intimidate those who do not also perceive his gentle touches of irony. He seems to enjoy presenting obscure authors and counterintuitive arguments with so radical a lack of introductory scaffolding that readers may feel guilty about their own astonishment—and may, out of this feeling of guilt, begin to consume books and subscribe to arguments whose pertinence (or lack thereof) they are far from understanding. Although Luhmann is probably not its author, the short thematic presentation on the cover of Probleme der Form, a collection of essays dedicated to the fascination, in systems theory, 1 with the work of the British mathematician George Spencer Brown, is a good example of this production of authority by lack of insistence: “Von der Form der Unterscheidung zu sprechen, wie G. Spencer Brown es vorschlägt, löst den Formbegriff aus seinen Gegenüberstellungen zu Materie, Substanz 2 oder Inhalt. Er wird [End Page 578] damit frei für einen Kalkül von Bezeichnungen, die in Abhängigkeit von Unterscheidungen getroffen werden und sich auf die Einschluß- und Ausschlußoperationen von Unterscheidungen hin beobachten lassen. Daraus läßt sich eine Theorie der einseitigen Verwendung von Zwei-Seiten-Formen gewinnen [...].” 3 It is perhaps of some anecdotal interest to mention here that such emphasis on discussing the form-concept as detached from notions of “matter” and “substance” (which had been coupled to it ever since Aristotle) resonates with a structurally similar remark in the entry “Form” from the fifth volume of the New Catholic Encyclopedia, published in 1967, during the heyday of Western neomarxism: “In recent philosophy the term form rarely occurs and the issues concerning the relationships between form and matter are no longer argued, the term matter being generally used without reference to form.”

The Marxists of thirty years ago took it for granted that their intellectual preoccupation with matter and materialism was a laudable cause because it announced an attitude of “realism” (as opposed to the then ill-reputed “idealism”) and of political commitment (as opposed to the then even worse-reputed “aestheticism” associated with such concepts as “form”). Today, by contrast, many of those readers—and even authors—who celebrate the vanishing of “matter” as a concept as if it were an epistemological liberation would be hard-pressed to explain exactly what intellectual benefits they expect from a concept of form that is detached from any concept of matter. It is indeed difficult to imagine that very many intellectuals were impatiently waiting for a “theory about the one-sided usage of two-sided forms” before it was promised them by the cover of Probleme der Form. Even Niklas Luhmann for once seems to acknowledge that the question “Why without matter?” is a real question, for it marks the point of departure of one of his essays on the philosophy of form: “Was geschieht, wenn man die andere Seite der Unterscheidung, also Materie, Substanz, Inhalt, einfach wegläßt und die Form als solche zu denken und zu manipulieren versucht?” 4 This very question regarding the consequences, for the side of form, of a separation between the concepts “form” and “matter” is what I want to deal with in the following pages. But while systems theory insists exclusively on the intellectual gain that comes from the bracketing of matter, it is my intention to discuss this conceptual [End Page 579] move from the reverse angle. I will look for possible losses in the analytic power of the form-concept which its separation from the concept of matter may cause. On a more general level, I am concerned with those limits of systems theory that stem from its reluctance (if not phobia) to include and to redefine notions belonging to the semantic field of “matter” or “substance.” Systems theory’s reluctance in this regard, far from being a merely implicit gesture, has become a part of the theory’s explicit program ever since Spencer Brown began to emerge as a key reference. It goes without saying, however, that trying to identify the limits of a theory is not...

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