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  • Systems Theory and the Difference between Communication and Consciousness: An Introduction to a Problem and its Context
  • Dietrich Schwanitz (bio)

The architecture of systems theory as developed by Niklas Luhmann reappears in its description when it is itself treated as a system in an environment. The environment of systems theory comprises other theories. Niklas Luhmann now presents systems theory as a theory of society. This is justified by the use of basic terms such as “communication,” “attribution” and “action,” even though other basic terms like “time” and “difference” seem to extend beyond mere reference to society.

Society is a system. Social systems consist of events. The raw material of events are communications. Communications in turn describe themselves as actions. They represent, as it were, disorder within the system. From this disorder, the system gains its contours through self-description. This is achieved through attribution. Attribution converts communications into events located in time, and these in turn are actions. This difference in levels between the disorder of communications and the order of actions is central to the understanding of systems theory, and it is at this point that Luhmann purposely differs from the classics of sociology. Placing their approaches in the theoretical framework of systems theory would mean localizing them in their entirety on the level of self-description. For Luhmann, however, [End Page 488] the question of self-description is not complete without the question of the self-constitution of communication. It is only the latter which contains the perspective of society itself. From this point of view, Parsons and the classics of sociology, by narrowing their perspective to role or action, abandoned the issue of society. The problem with Luhmann’s construction is the fact that communication is only accessible to itself through self-description, that is to say, action. In other words, society itself remains invisible. Like the medium of sounds and phonemes, into which words can be broken down and which remains invisible in speech (although language gains a clear outline through the combination of these), pure communication itself can only be observed as the latent pressure of imminent disorder and as a variety-pool for changes. Society is, as it were, the undercurrent in which social action takes on a more concrete shape as interaction, as organization or as subsystem. This relationship means that the discovery of society as such by Luhmann is a most improbable fact, which is itself the result of the improbability of the social evolution of modernity. There is a certain similarity between this discovery of an invisible omnipresence and Saussure’s discovery of language. But that again would correspond to the difference-theoretical character of Luhmann’s theory. Saussure’s discovery that linguistic and semantic values are not defined positively by their content but negatively through their difference from other terms of the linguistic system is generalized by Luhmann, who made this the basis of his entire theoretical framework. In this sense, systems theory is in accordance with Derrida and the deconstructionists in setting down difference, and not identity, as the basic term.

Thus, society is a system, and the elements of the system are not people, but communications. Communications create problems, which in turn can only be solved by other communications. This means that the system is recursively closed. This closure ensures the self-continuation of society, in other words: its autopoiesis. The problems communication creates—and then solves—for itself are its unreasonableness, opacity, dissent and, in particular, its transitoriness. Structures are created to link communications, such as institutions, media codes, processes, etc. Their relationship is a circular one: only those structures are selected that can link communications, and the chosen structures determine the selection of other communications. Structure is therefore not a basic term; systems theory is not structuralism; structures can only be understood through their relationship to the pressure of other problems generated by the appearing and disappearing [End Page 489] of communications, which are in themselves disordered. This problem is always reproduced by the difference in level of abstraction between communication and action. Unlike Habermas, Luhmann does not see communication as communicative activity, but rather as the reproduction of the necessity of attribution by constantly supplying...

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pp. 488-505
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