Systems Theory and Postmodernism

I’ve been listening to a lecture by Luhmann titled  “Systems Theory and Postmodernism.” Early in the lecture, Luhmann mentions a conversation he had with Jean-François Lyotard in which Lyotard said, “The Postmodern Condition was not one of his better books.”

In his 1979 book, Lyotard mentions systems theory and Luhmann a number of times. Of course, Lyotard could not discuss Luhmann’s mature work, such as Social Systems (1984). Thus, he focuses on the concept of stable systems and efficiency, describing systems theory as technocratic. He writes,

The idea that society forms an organic whole, in the absence of which it ceases to be a society (and sociology ceases to have an object of study), dominated the minds of the founders of the French school. Added detail was provided by functionalism; it took yet another turn in the 1950s with Parsons’s conception of society as a self-regulating system. The theoretical and even material model is no longer the living organism; it is provided by cybernetics, which during and after the Second World War, expanded the model’s application.

In Parsons’s work, the principle behind the system is still, if I may say, optimistic; it corresponds to the stabilization of the growth economies and societies of abundance under the aegis of a moderate welfare state. In the work of contemporary German theorists, systemtheorie is technocratic, even cynical, not to mention despairing: the harmony between the needs and hope of individuals or groups and the functions guaranteed by the system is now only a secondary component of its functioning. The true goal of the system, the reason it programs itself like a computer, is the optimization of the global relationship between input and output–in other words, performativity. Even when its rules are in the process of changing and innovations are occurring, even when its dysfunction (such as strikes, crises, unemployment, or political revolutions) inspire hope or lead to belief in an alternative, even then what is actually taking place is only an internal readjustment, and its result can in no way be more than an increase in the system’s “viability.” The only alternative to this kind of performance improvement is entropy, or decline.

Here again . . . it is difficult to deny at least a parallel between this “hard” technocratic version of society and the ascetic effort that was demanded . . . of the most highly developed industrial societies in order to make them competitive–and thus optimize their “rationality“–within the framework of the resumption of the economic world war in the 1960s.

Even taking into account the massive displacement intervening between the thought of a man like Comte and the thought of Luhmann, we can discern a common conception of the social: society is a unified totality, a “unicity.” Parsons formulates this clearly: “The most essential condition of successful dynamic analysis is the continual and systematic reference of every problem to the state of the system as a whole. . . . A process of set of conditions either ‘contributes’ to the maintenance (or development) of the system or it is ‘dysfunctional’ in that it detracts from the integration, effectiveness, etc., of the system.” The technocrats also subscribe to this idea.

The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, 11-12

Lyotard’s Luhmann is the Luhmann before his autopoietic turn, or before the influence of Maturana and Varela and the publication of Social Systems. The theory of autopoiesis emphasizes structural instability, not stability. A structural instability or insecurity is a predictable instability.

Lyotard goes on to write that system theory focuses on consensus and ignore dissent or “paralogy.” For this reason, systems theory, he argues, cannot accurately explain the scientific method, which valorizes dissent. As Lyotard puts it,

systems theory and the kind of legitimization it proposes have no scientific basis whatsoever; science itself does not function according to this theory’s paradigm of the system, and contemporary science excludes the possibility of using such a paradigm to describe society.

p. 61

Luhmann no doubt read this stinging rebuke, and it may have steered him toward Maturana and Varela.

In the lecture referenced above, Luhmann questions the very concept of postmodernism, arguing that the term was appropriated from architecture and applied as a generalized description of society. We are said to be living in post-modernity because society no longer has a meta-narrative—in this case, the narrative of positivism that supports democracy and faith in progress and increasing social justice. This narrative was embodied by the research university–and in a person like John Stuart Mill.

But that narrative has been eroding since the 1960s. In a globalized, decentralized society, there is no authority to inculcate or enforce a single, hegemonic narrative ( e.g., positivism). Nor are there any actual leaders, heroes, or role models that everyone can accept. We can’t point to a George Washington, for example, as hero for every American because he owned slaves (and fought against indigenous Americans and was probably a sexist, etc.) Instead, there are many incommensurate discourses/language games. We compartmentalize rather than seeking consistency. We can have science and religion, for example, because they are said to concern totally different issues–the are functionally differentiated; religion doesn’t have to be absorbed into science (or science and absorbed into religion) as the Deists or the Emersonian transcendentalists might have hoped. Discourses (e.g., the humanities and the natural sciences) and cultures now meet and either clash or just ignore each other, but no culture can think of itself as the only culture or consider its way of life the only way of life. Cultural narratives are always contingent–they could have been different than they are (and they don’t have to exist at all).

But Luhmann argues that society consists of communication, not narratives, norms, shared memories, cultural artifacts, etc. Thus, according to Luhmann, there has been no actual postmodern change because society still consists of communication. Postmodernism is a theory of cultural change; however, Luhmann displays little interest in culture. This is an important distinction. It’s not that Luhmann actually refuted Lyotard, he simply wasn’t interested in the theory; it wasn’t part of his research project.

Every culture or subculture or social clique or cult makes a distinction between normal and deviant; the deviant is the outside of the culture and the normal is the inside; those on the outside do not share one’s values or way of life. But–and this is important–the outside is the precondition for the inside–the excluded must also be included. The inside/outside distinction is the unity of a difference. Both sides emerge at once. When society is equated with culture and described in terms of shared norms, values, artifacts, technologies, etc., then those who do not share those norms or use those technologies are labeled deviant, and they’re allegedly separated from “society”—in prisons, mental hospitals, rehabilitation/reeducation camps, left to live on the streets, etc. This kind of thinking clings–at great cost–to the principle of unity in spite of obvious disunity.

But social systems theory treats society as communication, and even the “deviant” communicates. For this theory, a society is not a culture.

So why must we continue to describe society as a unity in spite of difference? We can instead call it the unity of a difference. Luhmann questions the usefulness of describing society as “a unity contrasted with internal differences.” We can instead describe society as a difference–the system/environment difference. In this case, it is not the difference between the normal and the deviant but the system/environment difference–or more precisely, the difference between communication and everything else. And the system is communication and nothing but communication. And narratives are, obviously, forms of communication.

Markus Heidingsfelder wrote,

[P]ost-modernist theory is itself nothing other than a grand narrative, as Luhmann ironically re-marked, even though it is better described as a métarécrit – a metanarrative. (Donald Trump and Alternative Für Deutschland (Afd): The Crisis of Politics, 2018)


  1. I think within communication there may be no unity but, undeniably, there has to be a unity somewhere. Perhaps in the body like you say (heartbeat, cholesterol) where sociology won’t seek it. Perhaps anywhere nobody is looking. And Occupy could well have been more successful (in fact, who or what says they were not) had the economy somehow interpreted their message in a way that aligned with its fuzzy goals. That is, I might be wrong in my interpretation, but Luhmann never said that systems don’t influence (irritate) each other, force each other to make statements that relate to one another’s business.


    1. Thanks for the comment. You say that Occupy might have been more successful had to economy interpreted their message differently, but I don’t believe it’s a question of interpreting messages. That seems to be the critical issue. I don’t think the economy responds to anything but money; the communication medium of the economy is money. So in order to influence the economy, the Occupy movement would have to use money, not language.

      For example, investors who supported the movement could have divested, taken their money out of the stock market or out of particular corporations. That might have shook up the 1%. Divestment was effective in destabilizing the apartheid regime in South Africa.

      I agree that Luhmann didn’t say that systems don’t influence each other. They do. But there has to be a common medium, such as money in the case of the economy.

      I’m not sure I know what you mean by “undeniably, there has to be a unity somewhere. Perhaps in the body like you say (heartbeat, cholesterol) where sociology won’t seek it.” Can you say more?


      1. It seems as though difference and unity, and the difference between them, somehow belong to the human condition. As in we cant think of a beyond, everything needs to fall within this particular logic. With regard to the body it seems as though there are a lot of non-scientific people out there that claim they actually influence their cholesterol and heartbeat by devoting thought it. What do you make of that?
        And as long as Occupy is/was a political movement it simply cannot use money as their code, they would (have to) be (observed as) an economic movement instead (although i must say divestment is without a doubt the best invention of the past century).


      2. I agree that Occupy, as a protest movement, can’t use money to influence the economy. It would probably have to evolve into a organization with dues-paying members, a leadership structure, a decision-making process, etc. It would also need some kind of PR department to speak with “one voice” to mass media. Otherwise, no one outside the movement knows what to respond to. What claims are being made? Of course, all of that would be anathema to the people in the movement.

        As a coherent organization, rather than an ad-hoc protest movement, it might be able to organize some kind of divestment campaign.

        As to the other issue, I think one can begin to influence his cholesterol level by thinking about it, but that thought has to be followed up with dietary changes, exercise, etc.

        BTW, I was looking for a comment button on your Structural Coupling blog but didn’t see one.


    1. Yes, it’s a figure of speech, but figures of speech can guide how we think and live. If I say “Time is money” that tends to influence how I live.


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