How does memory forget?

In Theory of Society, Luhmann argues that memory is the capacity to remember and forget. Systems must be able to forget. Memory is a system function (or operation), not a storage space. Meaning-based systems become overburdened (or overly complex and thus unsustainable) when they carry too much useless memory–meaning events that can no longer be connected to other meaning-events. Memory is a two-sided form with remembering on the inside and forgetting on the outside. Memory creates the difference between remembering and forgetting. Time creates a difference between before and after, but memory creates the difference between remembering and forgetting.

How does memory forget? It forgets by changing a meaning structure. For instance, contemporary society has forgotten that the aristocracy has rights that commoners don’t have. It has forgotten that it’s appropriate to burn heretics at the stake. It has forgotten that some races are natural slaves. It has forgotten that women are naturally inferior to men. These meaning-events cannot be connected in communication like they used to be. I’m glad society has forgotten these things. Memory runs consistency tests and forgets meaning-events that are no longer consistent.

In Luhmann’s lecture on  “Systems Theory and Postmodernism,” he says that memory is the capacity to resist new ideas, new irritations, new impulses, new problems. Here he seems to be focusing on the remembering capacity of memory. In social systems, communication can resist communication, or a premise can resist a new proposition that it finds inconsistent. Only communication can resist communication.

If a social system treats new problems as old problems, or in other words, doesn’t see the new in the new, it resists change. So remembering resists system changes. In this case, the system does not learn. For example, some social systems are accustomed to seeing everything in moral terms; so when they encounter an economic problem (e.g., offshoring, increasing income inequality), they treat it as a moral problem. When they encounter a mass media problem (e.g., journalism becoming entertainment), they treat it as moral problem. When they encounter an artistic problem (e.g., graphic sex in film), they treat it as a moral problem.

If a corporation like Pfizer decides to move its headquarters to Ireland to avoid 35 billion US taxes, people like Bernie Sanders  argue that this is immoral or unethical. Such judgement have no meaning for the economy. This is simply what corporations do in a globalized economy. The economy finds news ways to connect payments. The government cannot keep a corporation inside territorial boundaries. The thing to do is understand the process–understand what is–not moralize about what should be. If we want to change these things, we must understand them for what they are.

The medium of all social systems is meaning (a communication events as the threefold selection of information. utterance, and understanding), although meaning takes different forms in different function systems. For instance, in the economy, a monetary payment is meaningful; in politics, power is meaningful; in science,  a truthful assertion is meaningful. In art, innovation is meaningful; in mass media, news/information is meaningful. Moral values (to be esteemed/not-t0-be- esteemed) have no meaning for any of these function systems. Moral values only have effect when they are standardized as law.













  1. Good text again. Just one side-question: You are using the term “functional systems”. I tend to use “function system” because the gist of the matter is not that these systems are functional for this or that purpose (since virtually everything, including non-“function systems”, can be functionalized and, thus, functional), but rather that they are formed by (and only by) function-related, e.g., only economic or only scientific, observations/communications.

    At least in German language, the difference between a function system (Funktionssystem) and functional system (funktionales System; as compared to dysfunctional system) would be quite considerable. As a native English speaker, what is your opinion on that?


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