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.”

Luhmann proceeds to question the very concept of postmodernism, arguing that the term was appropriated from architecture and applied as a generalized description of a society that lacks a meta-narrative. In other words, we are said to be living in post-modernity because society no longer has a meta-narrative. So the theory rests on a lack. Presumably, modern and premodern societies had coherent narratives (along with shared values) that created a sense of consensus or at least a basis for discipline. But in a globalized, decentralized society, there is no authority to inculcate or enforce a single, hegemonic narrative. Nor are there any actual leaders, heroes, or role models. Thus, the argument goes, we are living in a postmodern age. Cultures now meet and clash, and 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 the assumption behind the postmodernism argument seems to be that a society consists of values, stories, norms, memories, social practices, etc. Where once people assumed that their way of life was the only legitimate way of life, now people recognize that their culture is just one among many possible cultures; thus, there is no meta-narrative. Other cultures have different ways of life, but they still have ways of life, which the 18th century philosophers called morals (or mores).

Thus, according Luhmann, there has been no actual postmodern change; postmodernists retain the traditional concept of society. For postmodernist thinkers, society is still all about shared norms, stories, values, morals, cultural memories, etc.

Every society makes a distinction between normal and deviant; the deviant is the outside of the society 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 defined in terms of shared norms, values, etc., then those who do not practice those norms 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.

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.

As 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)

We tend to think of contemporary society as being broken or sick, and if we can just fix it or heal it, then people will be happy–as if the purpose of society is to make people happy. But what if society has no “purpose,” no telos, other than circulating/reproducing communication? Luhmann argues that it is communication, not shared norms, that reproduces society.

Reproduction means to produce a product out of the same product. Thus, society re-produces communication out of communication. Communication only functions with reference to previous communication and in anticipation of further communication. This is the temporal dimension.

Clearly, there is no need for communication to be consensual or reasonable–and it rarely is. But it must be recursive, using communication to produce further communication. There must be a recursive reference to previous communication (system memory) and anticipation/expectation of subsequent communication. Communication produces possibilities for further communication. That is to say, communication produces the possibility of saying yes or no, or of accepting or rejecting an offer to communicate. Communication reproduces the difference between acceptance and rejection of propositions. This is operational closure.


  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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