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” (i.e., traditional, geographically isolated societies) had coherent narratives (along with shared values) that created a sense of consensus, but in a globalized, decentralized society there can be no narrative that covers the whole society. There is also no hierarchical authority to inculcate or enforce a single, hegemonic narrative. And when we have functionally differentiated systems like the economy and politics and the mass media, each pursuing its own agenda, then society gets more and more divided. Thus, the argument goes, we are living in a postmodern age.

But the assumption behind the postmodernism argument seems to be that global society is a whole that consists of people as the parts or, in other words, that society the sum of its parts, which are people. But then one may argue that society is “more than the sum of its parts,” but this is just mystification. No whole is more than the sum of its part. Two plus two can’t be more that four. There is no transcendental unity beyond the sum of the parts.

Thus, with postmodernism nothing has fundamentally changed; the traditional concept of society is retained. In other words, when we speak of a divided or fractured society, the underlying premise is there is a whole society, at least hypothetically, that can be fractured–the whole that is more than the sum of its parts. If something can be fractured, it has to start out as a whole or at least possibly be a whole, right?

This kind of thinking clings to unity in spite of obvious disunity or fragmentation. Thus, in the so-called postmodern age, we are either frustrated by the fractured “condition” of society or we celebrate it, but everyone seems to agree that society is internally fractured. The question then becomes, Should be try to somehow suture it back together, leave it alone, or become an anarchist and fracture it even more? These questions don’t seem to lead anywhere.

But why must we continue to describe society in this way–as a unity in spite of difference? Nothing has really changed with postmodernist critique. Postmodernists are still describing society as a whole divided into parts–with the parts being individual persons, or cultures, or social classes, ethnic groups, or something else.

Luhmann questions the usefulness of describing society as “a unity contrasted with internal differences.” Why not just describe society as difference–the system/environment difference?

We tend to think of 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 communication? Luhmann argues that it is communication, not action, that reproduces society. Reproduction means to produce a product out of the same product. Thus, society re-produces communication out of its own product, which is communication. Society reproduces communication, not action.

And we shouldn’t think of communication as action because communication, unlike action, is not something that one person can accomplish alone. Communication only functions with reference to previous communication and in anticipation of further communication. Moreover, the concept of “speech acts” tends to confuse things because speech and communication are not the same thing. This is not to say it’s a waste to time to study speech, language, or linguistics. It’s just to say that communication is something different. Communication is a social system operation, not an action like walking or cooking dinner.

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 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.

This idea of operational closure differs from Maturana and Verala’s concept of the closed system, which refers to causal isolation, or that closed systems succumb to decay or entropy while open systems are able to resist entropy. This is not what Luhmann means. He is talking about operational closure, not causal closure. For example, economic factors can certainly cause something to happen in a political system; the economy can destabilize the political system. And there are dependency relationships between different systems, as in the way the economy depends on law. Clearly, we can’t have a functioning economy without law.

But this structural openness does not negate operational closure. Furthermore, the only thing something outside an operationally closed system can cause to happen in that system (other than complete destruction) is instability; the law, for example, can destabilize the economy, but it cannot cause a particular, predictable effect. Also law cannot restabilize the economy. Neither can politics, the mass media, science, or any functional system. The only thing that can restabilize the economy is the economy. In sum, operationally closed systems are structurally dependent but operationally autonomous. So when a politician says he will fix the economy or create jobs, he is just campaigning for votes.

An autopoietic system cannot access its environment with its own operations. For example, politics cannot access the economy with political decisions or power (the power to make collectively binding decisions); politics (or actually a political organization such as the state) has to use money to influence the economy, as in fiscal and monetary policies. Just as politics cannot use its decision-making power alone to regulate the economy, I cannot talk to my heart and ask it to beat faster or slower. And the legal system (the law) cannot make a legal decision with money, which is the medium of the economic system. Certainly, money can and does influence legal decisions, but the decision itself is not produced with money. Rather, legal decisions are made out of previous legal decisions. The law uses legal decisions to make more legal decisions–this is the autopoietic reproduction of the legal system. In other words, law becomes an autopoietic system, or outdifferentiates from society, when it first states its own premise.

I realize that any critique of postmodern theory is likely to be read as reactionary, as if I’m saying that intellectuals should stop worrying about all the injustice in the world. But that is not the point at all. Of course, we need to be concerned about these problems, particularly issues like climate change and overpopulation; however, postmodern theory, as long as it persists in thinking of society as an aggregation of people, cannot help us address any of these problems.

One case where ignorance of systems was evident was the Occupy Movement. Many well-meaning people wasted a lot of time trying to use moral or ethical arguments/persuasion to change an economic system that favors the top 1%. But the only medium the economy recognizes is money; ethical arguments and persuasion do not register. It’s like using eloquent arguments to try to persuade my bad cholesterol level to go down.

Probably the only way the Occupy movement could have significantly destabilized Wall Street or the US economic system would have been through some kind of divestment movement, similar to the process that undermined to the South African apartheid system.  Somehow the Occupy movement might have persuaded investors to take their money out of corporations that were deemed to be exploiting the 99%. Within the context of climate change, this strategy is currently being used by American college students who are trying persuade their universities to divest from corporations such as Exxon Mobil.


  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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