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” 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. 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.
But the assumption behind the postmodernism argument seems to be that a society consists of values, stories, norms, memories, 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. Other cultures have different ways of life, the they still have ways of life.
Thus, with postmodernism nothing has fundamentally changed; the traditional concept of society is retained. Society is still all about shared norms, stories, values, 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. But the outside is the precondition for the inside. The inside/outside distinction is the unity of a difference.
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 separated from society–in prisons, mental hospitals, rehabilitation/reeducation camps, 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 difference–the system/environment difference? It is not the difference between the normal and the deviant, but the system/environment difference. And the system is communication and nothing but communication.
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 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 communication. Communication only functions with reference to previous communication and in anticipation of further communication.
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.
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 social injustice. 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 in terms of shared norms, values, stories, memories, etc., it cannot help us address any of these problems.