Dirk Baecker’s Sociology of Culture and Art

I have been reading and thinking a lot about political theory, even though I often find it very dry and depressing. And I find the current state of American politics particularly depressing. So I am turning to other areas of systems theory, such as art and culture. I will begin with a secondary source, a sort of introduction to Dirk Baecker’s writings on art and culture. Here are some excerpts from

Rudi Laermans (2011).”‘After Luhmann’: Dirk Baecker’s Sociology of Culture and Art.” Cultural Sociology 5.1.  155-165, first published on March 23, 2011. doi:10.1177/1749975510389918

I, of course, suggest that you read the actual article.

It is rather ‘typically Dirk Baecker’ not to start from a substantive definition of culture. In Wozu Kultur?, the question is not ‘what is culture?’, he argues, but ‘what is observed under the title of culture within modern society and what is observable as culture’ (Baecker, 2000: 83). This stance actually refers to the so-called second order cybernetics that Heinz von Foerster (1981) developed during the 1970s and which has vastly influenced systems theory. Whereas first-order observations operate in a realistic mode (one for instance defines what culture ‘really is’), second-order observation is a matter of observing first-order observers and their conceptual distinctions as well as their blind spots. In line with this approach, Baecker asks what is implied when the modern concept of culture that was coined within anthropology and historiography is put to use, and this regardless of eventual differences in definition. (157)

Comparing various ways of living is of course not only the trade of social scientists. Again and again, human beings have stumbled upon others with different ideas or customs, and this increasingly in modern (colonial) times. Baecker therefore follows Gregory Bateson (1972: 61–72), who in his seminal essay ‘Culture Contact and Schismogenesis’ puts forward the thesis that a culture emerges out of the contact between different ways of living. Before the latter there only existed a life-world that was experienced as natural. This way of living transforms into a culture and starts to observe itself as singular through the contrastive comparison with another life-form. Or as Baecker (2008a: 34) writes: ‘Culture is a product of second order observation. One discovers and observes that others observe differently’. This implies that one’s cultural identity is indeed genuinely ‘schizoid’ since its presumed singularity and authenticity are co-defined by the witnessing of another culture.   ‘The native is infected by the foreign’ (Baecker, 2000: 17): the members of a culture know that there exist others who cherish different values and act differently. They will eventually defend their culture, yet according to Baecker something sociologically more profound is at stake in this kind of immune reaction. For people say ‘culture’ but they actually mean ‘social order’. In Baecker’s view, one of the latent functions of a culture is precisely to highlight the precariousness and uncertainty of a social order in such a way that it becomes likely and legitimate to take defensive measures in the name of ‘our culture’. In a word, ‘a culture represents within a social order this social order as being threatened and worth conserving’ (Baecker, 2000: 37). This sounds indeed familiar in the light of the recent ‘culture wars’ fought out in many western countries between ‘old’ and ‘new’ citizens.(157-58)

Yes, this is particularly relevant to the neo-nationalism that Trump embodies. Laermans continues,

Next to the idea that modern culture has to do with comparison, and therefore with identity and difference, the functionalist description of culture in terms of a two-sided memory that recalls and forgets values is a second recurrent theme in Dirk Baecker’s considerations on culture (Baecker, 1997, 2000, 2008b). The work of Niklas Luhmann (1995b, 1997) is once again the direct source of inspiration, but Baecker gives a particular twist to the idea of culture-as-memory. Whereas Luhmann tends to emphasize the production of communicative evidences by means of the usually implicit recall and confirmation of, for instance, already known values, Baecker stresses the importance of the foregrounding of possibilities of normative orientation or interpretation that are momentarily excluded in communication. (158-59)

He is . . . of the opinion that culture does not steer action or communication in a direct way, for instance by means of internalized values and norms that give rise to mutually fitting social expectations (a la Parsons). It is just highly implausible to presume that social actors are guided by normative orientations in every moment that they interact with each other. Therefore the concept of culture can be distinguished from the notion of society (Baecker 1997, 2000). Whereas the latter points to the actual continuation of social action, which often necessitates improvisation, the former refers to the distinction between correct and incorrect action. (159)

Culture, in this sense, seems closely tied to the moral code.  Correct action is to be esteemed, and incorrect action is not to be esteemed.

Baecker approaches culture as a form, in the meaning that George Spencer-Brown (1969) gives to this notion. The concept of culture points to a difference with two sides, of which one is marked (i.e. the dominant values or normative orientations) and the other is unmarked but nevertheless active. The unmarked side comprises other normative possibilities that either form the counterpart of the preferred ones or are derived from the comparative observation of a different culture. As a memory, culture is both the reproduction of the official values and the constant recalling of alternative options that make these values appear as contingent selections that may be put into question. (159)

Yet, if one thinks this through, as Baecker (2000) effectively does, the ultimate question that culture raises is about whether one accepts or rejects the alternative between correct or incorrect behaviour, values and counter-values, or – more generally – identity and difference. This brings Baecker to the conclusion that culture ‘is by way of saying the third value that has become universal, the tertium datur as protest against everything that society thinks it can bring in the form of either/or’ (Baecker, 2000: 106). (160)

Baecker connects the idea of culture-as-comparison with the process of globalization or the coming-into-being of a world society. ‘The “world” of the world society is that horizon for comparing local with global possibilities that provides in situ the selectivity of every communication and action with a knowledge of alternatives’, (Baecker, 2008b: 158). This was already the case within colonial modernity, yet the consciousness that one’s value preferences are contingent in the light of other cultures has changed within the context of a world society marked by subsequent waves of immigration towards the West on the one hand and a much denser network of globally circulating information on the other. (160)

Therefore, the notion of culture increasingly transforms into passe partout [framing] formula for the coding of actions or communications whose meaning one does not immediately grasp. ‘One falls back on culture in order to find a mode of understanding when dealing with obscure differences in socialization, education, confession, affluence and knowledge’, (Baecker 2000: 18) already noted in one of the essays collected in Wozu Kultur? Culture becomes a leading semantic as well as a generalized mode of observation within world society. (160)

Baecker defines the notion of culture-form with regard to the fact that every medium of communication creates many more communicative possibilities than may be momentarily actualized. A culture-form does not restrict these possibilities but offers a general formula that allows one to deal with this overflow. . . .

The emergent culture-form primarily refers to the impossibility to know how a computer grid actually computes the information we take up in an ensuing communication or action. . . [Our knowledge] is  subjected to algorithms that we can neither consciously nor socially look through’. Notwithstanding the claim that we are entering a knowledge society, our growing dependency on computer meditated information and communication implies that we are exposed to an irremediable non-knowledge. The decisive point is that we simply do not know what we do not know: we have to take into consideration an indeterminate ‘outside’ that is constitutive for the ‘inside’ which contains the information we momentarily process. In Baecker’s view, precisely this unity of the difference between knowing and not-knowing, or between a marked and an unmarked side, defines the culture-form that will become dominant in ‘the next society’. (161-62)

On Communication and Art

Individuality differs from communication to such an extent that we have to make do with two separate realities. Individual consciousnesses or bodies are closed entities that go on with making their own thoughts or experiences when participating in communication. Consciously experienced sensory perceptions can therefore never be directly stated but may only become the subject or theme of communications that refer to previous or upcoming communications. This very same communicative context shows how information is publicly – i.e. not in the non-accessible private mind – understood and further processed. Although individuality is time and again addressed and discussed in communication, individuals indeed do not steer the communication process, since the meaning of every individual statement depends on the ensuing communications of other participants (whose statements are also contextualized by following statements, and so on). As Baecker (2005a: 63) writes: ‘Communication is defined by the fact that, in the light of the closed nature of individuals, it places a social event instead of the transfer of messages’.

. . . .

Nevertheless, the sociologically decisive point remains the operative difference between the processing of thoughts by a psychic system, including conscious sensory experiences, and the processing of bit of information or utterances by a social system. Every uttered bit of information will be interpreted selectively by the participating ‘minds’, but from a social point of view only the understanding indicated by following communications is of importance. (162)

In line with Luhmann’s (2000) considerations on art, Baecker describes all artistic communication as addressing the difference between communication and sensory perception. Art works seize the eye and/or the ear by means of the materiality of words, colours, sounds, moving images, and so on, in view of the communication of meaningful information. Yet in contradistinction to ‘entertainment’, they do no try to simulate the possibility of an actually impossible unity of communication and the conscious processing of sensory experiences. They rather irritate perception as well as understanding by offering ‘percepts’ that may not be immediately grasped, thus stressing the difference between perception and communication. This is also true for novels or poetry, since literature uses language in such a way that the reader observes the difference between his or her conscious association that the words evoke and their eventual meaning in the context of a story or a poem. . .   In another essay, he succinctly characterizes art in a comparable way as ‘establishing that perceptible meaning that finds its meaning rather in the perceptibility than in meaning itself’ (Baecker, 2004a: 49).

Artistic communication foregrounds the ‘aesthetic coupling’ of the individual and society, that usually remains implicit in all sorts of communication. It is a highly paradoxical form of communication since it explicitly re-enters the individual ‘outside’ into the communicatively created ‘inside’. This figure of thought of the inclusion of the excluded can also be found in Baecker’s characterization of the culture-form of ‘the coming society’. Indeed, he circumscribes it as the inclusion of an excluded nonknowledge into one’s knowledge: one has to take into consideration one’s proverbial idiocy regarding computer algorithms as the condition of possibility of the processed knowledge or information. (163-64)

We may also conclude that the figure of the inclusion of the excluded is an underlying ‘form’ in Baecker’s work. Its inspiring character undoubtedly lies in the often surprising ways in which its author uses this form for the interpretation of more particular phenomena. (164)


    1. Nice coincidence. I’m happy you noticed the post, even though it is just a collection of quotes. I really wish more of your work was translated into English, or maybe I just need to learn to read German! I feel like you can help me better understand social systems theory, especially when I hit a wall reading Luhmann. I often have the feeling of “OK, where can I go from here? How can this theory help me understand X?”

      At the moment, I am reading “What Is Holding Societies Together? On Culture Forms, World Models, and Concepts of Time.” I hope to post some thought on that soon.


      1. Publishers are cautious. I would have loved to get my Neurosoziologie translated since it brings in Kant’s thinking abou reasoning as well as Spencer-Brown’s form and von Foerster’s self-organizing organism. Yet, no way. Still smacks self-reference. And for some reason.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.