Moeller’s “Luhmann Explained”

I’m enjoying reading Hans-Georg Moeller’s Luhmann Explained, just as a I enjoyed The Radical Luhmann. I appreciate the clarity of the prose and all the examples Moeller provides. This is one thing that makes Luhmann so hard to read–he doesn’t offer many examples. Most academic writers, particularly contemporary philosophers or theorists, seem to think providing examples is beneath them. They seem to aspire to an abstract, mathematical language. It’s a way of excluding nonspecialists. Though I suppose if Luhmann offered more examples, books like Social Systems and the two volumes of The Theory of Society would be very long.

Here’s a passage from Moeller dealing with mass media:

Technological developments therefore cannot produce revolutions in communication. They can only produce revolutions in technology. How communication reacts to technological developments is decided by and in communication alone. Strictly speaking, the Internet does not change society—society (not only the mass media, but also the economy, politics, and so forth) changes itself by resonating with changes in its technological environment. The predictable unpredictability of the social impact of technological innovations proves this point. Hardly any of the predictions—neither the enthusiastic nor the gloomy—of the technology prophets ever came true. One can find in the Communist Manifesto the belief that the newspaper would finally emancipate the masses and liberate the workers. Similar predictions were made in regard to television and the Internet. On the other hand, practically all new communication technology was initially also greeted by a deep pessimism that equated them with the final demise of civilization. (124)

The examples of the Communist Manifesto, TV, and the Internet are very clear.

In terms of substance, the claim that “the Internet does not change society” seems nonsensical for a reader unfamiliar with Luhmann’s work. All we ever hear is that technology, especially digital technology, is producing a social revolution or at least a transformation. We often hear that the Internet has changed everything; however, the only thing the Internet can do is perturb social systems. The Internet can destabilize politics or the economy or education, for example, but how these function systems respond, or how they re-stabilize themselves, is determined by those systems alone. For instance, it’s doubtful that many people in the 1980s envisioned an Internet that would become a global pornography-distribution technology, leading Playboy magazine to eliminate nudity from its pages.

Material technology exists in the environment of communication. As such, it perturbs and limits communication. Or we can say that it alters the possibilities for communication. Moeller writes,

Only communication can communicate. The operational structures that emerge in mass media communication are of course continuously  “irritated” and also limited by the technological environment (when there is a blackout, you cannot turn on your TV), but technology does not operationally connect to communication. Just as you cannot communicate with brainwaves, you also cannot communicate with what goes on in a microchip. (124)

Again, these examples are very helpful.

Another way of looking at writing that refuses to provide examples is that it presents the pose of “the wise man.” The reader is only permitted to see the surface of the ideas, but we assume that there is great depth somewhere. Examples offer depth, or they “flesh out” the skeleton of the argument. This is similar to how Luhmann and Moeller describe advertising:

As to the communicative structure of advertising, its most important schema “lies in the relationship of surface and depth: As the divination techniques of wisdom once used to, it uses the lineations of the surface in order to suggest depth” (Luhmann 2000a, 48). Like the ancient men of wisdom, advertising always shows only the surface, but by showing it, suggests a vast depth. We only see a short commercial for a new car. The new car appears more or less in a flash and then disappears as abruptly as it came, but the commercial inevitably hints at the immense strength and speed hidden in this car and at the great prestige with which it will not fail to supply its lucky owner. (Moeller 130)

When philosophers and theorists write in an aphoristic style, they reveal the surface and lead the reader to believe there must be great depth underneath. And there may indeed be great depth in the writer’s mind, but she/he is not going to let us see it.

Nonetheless, when I am trying to understand a difficult argument or new ideas, I appreciate examples, metaphors, and analogies. The counterargument is that by providing examples, metaphors, etc., new ideas are put in the context of old, familiar ideas and the newness is lost or not appreciated.


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