- What Society?Invisible Machines, Control, and Niklas Luhmann's Theory of Society
The ubiquity of notions of communication and control is a reflex of the success that the discourse of Cybernetics as a regime of signification gained from the second half of the twentieth century, when an epistemology based on the systemic relation between information, function and communication spread across heterogeneous disciplinary domains and eventually became an epistemological dominant. The emphasis on communication, in the specific declination that followed a well-known trajectory in the history of post-World War II first and second order cybernetics,1 is crucial to Niklas Luhmann's theory of society, which addresses modern society not in the conventional terms of classical sociology, as an organization of groups, individuals, or communities, but as a plurality of interdependent, self-organizing, and self-propelling functional systems whose operations consist of communications, and which process and manage their environment through their own communication. Modern society, in Luhmann's view, exists and is organized by the interactions of a series of functionally autonomous, specialized subsystems—politics, law, science, art, education, etc.—that establish themselves autologically by applying self-referential codes carrying the principle of selectivity by means of which they organize and reproduce themselves, their own organization and their own elements recursively, as communication, from an environment that—to paraphrase Ludwig Von Foerster—knows no communication.
The two fundamentals of this theory are that the functional distinction between system/environment replaces all ontological binarisms inherited by the metaphysical tradition (subject/object; body/mind; culture/nature; individual/society), and that the relation between any system and its environment is always asymmetrical because the principle of selectivity deployed by systems to define their relation to the environment is by [End Page 133] definition limited by their specific self-referential code; consequently, any system is always less complex than its environment.
Following these two axioms, Luhmann's sociology reconceptualizes the relation that classical sociology establishes between subjects, objects and social space as a relation of systems, environments and communication, and redefines communication itself as "the specific operation whose autopoietic process leads to the formation of social systems in corresponding environments"2 (2012, 41). In this view, society surfaces as a complex "network of communication" (1990, 100) that bootstraps and recursively reproduces its own organization as communication in the context of overwhelmingly complex environmental conditions. In this perspective, communication clearly means something very different from the "transference" of meaning or information between a sender and a receiver, or from the process of encoding and decoding of signs. Similarly, meaning indicates something very different from a quantity of mental or ontologically given content to be exchanged between minds or people. Reconfigured through the language of information theory and second order cybernetics, meaning is conceptualized as the medium through which social and psychic systems—societies and minds—process their difference from the environment and from each other. This difference is then observed and "re-entered" into the system by the system as a form that presents simultaneously the difference between what is actualized and what is excluded. The inclusion/exclusion dynamics paradoxically keeps available for future reference what is excluded by the very act of selection as reference to other, not actualized possibilities. This is why Luhmann defines meaning as the two-sided form of the contingent difference between what is actual and what is potential, and argues that each meaning, which "exists only as meaning of the operations using it, and hence only at the moment in which it is determined by operations, neither beforehand, nor afterward," always means "itself and other things" (2012, 18, 20).3
This excursus on meaning is important in our discussion of the reproduction of society, as we will see, because meaning is the adaptive, universal medium through which psychic and social systems have co-evolved by integrating the difference between information, utterance and understanding and by deploying it to continue their autopoiesis as either consciousness [End Page 134] (in the case of mental operations) or communication (in the case of social operations). Through meaning, these systems have evolved by developing increasingly sophisticated, time-constituting structures to build their internal complexity in order to better adapt...