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  • What Is Holding Societies Together?On Culture Forms, World Models, and Concepts of Time
  • Dirk Baecker (bio)
    Translated by Stan Jones and Anja Welle 1

Recursive Society

What is holding societies together? The question is curiously moving. Do societies fall apart, then? And if they do, what do their parts fall into, if not once again into what we call society? So is the question redundant? Or is it just being put the wrong way? Should we perhaps start out by saying that they do hold together while falling apart, or even that what keeps them together is, in fact, that they fall apart, and vice versa? It makes you think of Plato, driven by his normative concern over the just society and all the while living in a society that was, clearly, if we believe his own description of the lively doings in the city, anything but threatened as regards its empirical coherence. 2 We can also think of Aristotle, who advocates for the just mean in opposition to a society that certainly had no idea how to maintain this but was obviously functioning downright vigorously, all the same. 3 Philosophers have good reason to be concerned. Yet what stands out, and is a common premise among sociologists, is that concern about society happens in societies, which have found their own patterns of reproduction, mostly regardless of this concern, and know how to maintain them. Sociologists, like Gabriel Tarde, Georg Simmel, Max Weber, and even Emile Durkheim, when he is not busy thinking like a pedagogue, therefore assume that conflict within society is as fundamental to its cohesion as the situation that all its parts, individuals and institutions alike, are imperfect and so need something added to them. 4

In what follows, it is not a question of denying that society was and is in a somewhat lamentable state, viewed historically as well as currently. Violence and environmental destruction, social injustice and psychic degradation, are clear enough testimony to that. However, this conclusion [End Page 1] should not distract from the fact that humanity can today successfully reproduce itself at a level of complexity and with a size of population both of which we do indeed understate if we just deem them evolutionarily unlikely. So, when we look for an answer to the question posed about what holds societies together, we have to keep a cool head and regard good and bad fortune, justice and injustice, war and peace as the two sides of one coin. Both sides of the coin contribute to reproducing society empirically, regardless of how unsatisfactory what we get to see in the process may be as regards norms.

The question refers, not least, to the contribution norms make to this reproduction. It is obviously not a question of them being observed, because society would have collapsed long ago if that were the question. Norms rule counterfactually; that is, they rule because they are disobeyed now and then. And they are the product of what has caused so much surprise among game theorists, as well as sociobiologists: individuals' readiness to sanction injury to themselves even when these sanctions incur costs that outstrip the direct personal benefit (to say nothing here of the risk such sanctioning behavior involves for whoever is doing the sanctioning). It seems that such behavior involves reputation effects that are positively evaluated and offset the costs. 5

We propose looking at the form of recursivity to seek an answer to the question we have posed. This form holds society together insofar as everything that happens socially can be made into the starting point for further events in society. As long as social events follow social events, society holds together. Our project substitutes a temporal calculation for all possible substantive answers to the question posed. We need this temporal calculation ("what comes next?") to be capable of integrating the social meaning of a society ("who with whom?") just as much as its practical meaning ("what is it all about?"). 6 The social and practical meanings are interchangeable just as long as it is possible to identify a connecting event that takes society a step further beyond the particular instant. We are dwelling on...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-0342
Print ISSN
0011-1589
Pages
pp. 1-22
Launched on MUSE
2011-08-03
Open Access
No
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