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–event traces that can no longer be connected to other traces. Memory is a two-sided form with remembering on the inside and forgetting on the outside. Both capacities are necessary–the line must be crossable

How does memory forget? It forgets by changing a meaning structure, or something that serves as the premise for further communication. For instance, contemporary society has “forgotten” that the aristocracy has rights that commoners don’t have. No one would now be called an aristocrat or a commoner unless the speaker were trying be clever. Society has also forgotten that it’s appropriate to burn heretics at the stake, or that there is such a thing as heretic. It has forgotten that some races are natural slaves. It has forgotten that women are naturally inferior to men. We are not talking about what is true or false, but rather what is taken as meaningful in a particular social context. The claim, for instance, that some races are natural slaves will not be taken seriously. That is to say, the communication offering will be rejected. Although the utterance does have meaning, it won’t be taken seriously in communication, which means it will not be taken (accepted) as a premise for further communication. For  communication offer to be accepted does not mean it is taken a true; it just means it’s accepted as premise for further communication. Statements such as “some races are natural slaves” will be rejected; it cannot be connected or incorporated into communication like they used to be, and I’m glad society has forgotten these things.

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. Memory runs consistency tests, and a social system can resist communication that it finds inconsistent or unconnectable to previous 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 memory can resist system changes. In this case, the system fails to 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., 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, but moral judgments have no meaning for the economy. This is simply what corporations do in a globalized economy. If not stopped by the legal system, the economy will do whatever it can to facilitate transactions (e.g., buying and selling of slaves, cock fighting, etc.). The government cannot keep a corporation inside territorial boundaries. The thing to do is to 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 event being 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 truth claim is meaningful. In art, innovation is meaningful; in mass media, news/information is meaningful. Moral values (to be esteemed/not-to-be- esteemed) have no meaning for any of these function systems. Moral values only have effect when they are standardized as law or when they are written into the policies (like a code of conduct) of an organization. 



  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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