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  • A Redescription of “Romantic Art”
  • Niklas Luhmann (bio)


A sociologist taking up a theme like “romantic art” should endeavor to add nothing new to the subject matter itself. Faithfulness to the object is called for—even if only in the ordinary sense of “empirical.” In what follows it is therefore not a matter of competing with literary or aesthetic inquiry or of offering new interpretations of Romantic texts or other contemporary works of art. Nor shall I intervene in the broad discussion bearing on the relationship of Romanticism, and above all early German Romanticism (Frühromantik), to modern society and its self-description as “modern”; 1 this discussion is too dependent on crude evaluations (for example, “irrationalism”) and will necessarily remain controversial as long as the concept of modernity itself remains controversial. It is, then, not a question of hermeneutics, not a matter of ‘knowing better’ in the domain of the critical analysis of art; in fact it is not even, at least not directly, a question here of a more adequate understanding of key Romantic concepts such as poetry (Poesie), irony, arabesque, fragment, criticism. Such may emerge as a byproduct of our investigation. But disciplinary discourses operate in their own specific recursive networks, with their own intertextualities, their own self-fabricated pasts, which, for instance, determine what one has to do in order to assume the standpoint of second-order observation and to remain intelligible—regardless of whether one continues the discursive tradition or suggests particular changes. And, as is well-known, it is difficult [End Page 506] (if not impossible, at least dependent on coincidences hard to foresee) to intervene in disciplines from the outside in the name of interdisciplinarity. 2

This should be emphasized in advance when, as here, it is a matter of redescribing with systems-theoretical instruments what happened when Romanticism discovered its own autonomy and realized and worked through what had already taken place historically, namely the social differentiation of a functional system specifically related to art. 3 There is a considerable literature bearing on this development, a literature that takes as its point of departure the notion that the specific character of Romanticism as well as subsequent reflections of art is conditioned by the reorganization of society along the lines of functional differentiation. 4 If Romanticism was modern and still is, then not because it preferred the “hovering” (das “Schwebende”) or the “irrational” or the “fantastic,” but because it attempts to endure system autonomy. Up till now, however, there have not been any investigations that seek to make clear, at the level of abstraction of general systems theory, what is to be expected when functional systems are differentiated as self-referential, operationally closed systems. This process cannot be grasped according to the schema—still predominant at the time of Romanticism—of part and whole. The same goes for general concepts of the advantageous division of labor or, negatively formulated, of the eternal conflict of apriori binding values; phrased in terms of proper names: the point holds for Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. For neither can one assume that an “organic” solidarity corresponding to the division of labor emerges on its own, nor is it justified to conceive of values as fixed points on the horizon of action orientation. Today entirely different theoretical instruments are available for a discussion of these foundational issues. [End Page 507]


Important changes in the conceptual repertoire of systems theory result when one substitutes “essential definitions” (Wesensdefinitionen), but also so-called analytic system concepts, with the theoretical notion of the operative closure of systems. Essential definitions rested on a hetero-referential (fremdreferentiell) orientation, analytic definitions on a self-referential orientation of the observer. The notion of operative closure and, related to it, the theory of autopoietic systems presuppose that self-referential systems must be observed. They are just that which they make out of themselves. An observation is therefore only then appropriate if it takes the self-reference of the system and, in the case of systems operating with meaning (sinnhaft operierend), the self-observation of the system into account. The “paradigm shift” that is thereby accomplished displaces systems theory from the level of first-order observation...

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pp. 506-522
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