What is Holding Societies Together?

The question of what is holding societies together is about solidarity, and it goes back to Durkheim’s distinction between mechanical and organic solidarity. But this post deals mostly with an argument made by Dirk Baecker.

We can only think in terms society falling apart if we start with the assumption, or mechanistic metaphor, that society is a whole consisting of parts or pieces (like a clock), which it is not. Baecker asks,

What is holding societies together? The question is curiously moving. Do societies fall apart, then? And if they do, what do their parts fall into, if not once again into what we call society? So is the question redundant? Or is it just being put the wrong way? Should we perhaps start out by saying that they do hold together while falling apart, or even that what keeps them together is, in fact, that they fall apart, and vice versa?

“What Is Holding Societies Together? On Culture Forms, World Models, and Concepts of Time.” Criticism (Winter 2011), Vol. 53, No. 1, pp. 1–22.

If we think society is falling apart in an ethical, moral, or cultural sense, we are applying a normative model. We say that society is not what it is supposed to be; it is falling short somehow. In other words, we draw a distinction between what is and what should or could be. But this is a description (or evaluation) of society. Society, like an individual, can describe or evaluate itself as falling apart. And if society can still be describe itself, it must not have fallen apart yet. Likewise, if a person says she is falling apart, she has clearly not yet fallen apart.

Yet what stands out, and is a common premise among sociologists, is that concern about society happens in societies, which have found their own patterns of reproduction, mostly regardless of this concern, and know how to maintain them.

Baecker, p. 1

A society doesn’t fall apart if it keeps asking What’s next? This question allows society to reproduce itself. On an individual level, this question keeps people from endlessly repeating themselves or giving up and destroying themselves.

We don’t worry about “our” society falling apart until we compare it to other societies, whether contemporary or past societies or maybe future, science-fiction or Utopian societies that we are falling short of.  We worry that our society (or social order or culture) is falling away from an ideal, and/or we worry about being negatively influenced by other societies once we make contact with them.  But what’s interesting is that we don’t even know we have a particular culture or social order until we come into contact with populations that live differently. It’s like we don’t even know that our family has particular way of life until we compare it to other families.  

All observation is recursive, so observation of society must be recursive. Recursivity entails time and memory. Time is an observation (a product of the past/future distinction). Time isn’t something that exists apart from an observer. It isn’t a fourth dimension that simply exists.

The observation of time is a central concern in systems theory. We see this in Luhmann’s argument that law’s function is the stabilization of expectations. We orient ourselves to reality through memory and expectations. So the question to ask is not What is reality? or Where are we? but rather What comes next? As long as society keeps asking this question, it keeps reproducing itself. Society is recursive because it keeps asking the same question, What’s next? As Baecker writes,

We are dwelling on the idea of a recursive function because it helps to define two minimal conditions constituting a society’s cohesiveness. The first minimal condition states that society does carry on. And the second declares that whatever is carrying on remains recognizable as a society (and not as something else altogether).

A third minimal condition is already contained in the first two: there must obviously be a kind of cognition that recognizes society as society. This cognition must accompany the reproduction of society.

More accurately, the cognition of society is part of the reproduction of society; it doesn’t merely accompany society.

Baecker goes on to discuss the surplus of meaning and how societies deal with this surplus:

What we are initially concerned with here is formulating a hypothesis. And this hypothesis maintains that the form of recursivity that holds society together consists of two elements, and only two. There is the structure of a surplus of meaning and the culture of dealing with this surplus selectively. We underpin this hypothesis with two concepts. The first is that of a structure that is grounded in a free-form order of events deriving from the decay of this order. The second is that of a culture that is grounded in every known society in possessing the possibilities for quarreling over the right and the wrong, especially about the right and the wrong way of selecting events. The structure carries the surplus, the culture the selection, and both are possible only when the respective other is present.

Baecker, p. 5

So we have a structure that consists of a surplus of meaning and a culture that selects from this surplus. Selection is only necessary in a context of surplus. Example: I have a surplus of socks and I need to select just one pair; some other pair can always be selected, and these selections remain (latent) available if I change my mind. Similarly, every utterance offers a surplus of meaning, and understanding is a selection from this surplus.

Memory is important here, as it shapes selections of meaning. Memory provides a context for selection, limiting the range of possibilities. If I’ve never read or seen Hamlet performed, when you mention Hamlet’s depression, what will that mean to me? I need to select a plausible meaning if the communication is to continue. Maybe you have cat named Hamlet and he is depressed?

No meanings are ever transferred intact from a sender to receiver. Signifier and signified are different. Spoken language introduces the possibility of misunderstanding, confusion, lying, argument, etc. Baecker argues that tribal societies formed to deal with this disruption, or “catastrophe.” In other words, tribal societies serve to monitor, regulate, or police oral communication.

Baecker talks about four types, or exemplary cases, of society–tribal society, stratified society, functionally differentiated society, and next society. Each type forms to deal with a particular disruption, or catastrophe, in communication media. Each also gives rise to a particular world model and different patterns of dealing with time and mobility (6).

First of all, let us propose a tribal society that, we would suspect, is a product of coping with the catastrophe caused by introducing language. According to Charles Darwin, humans began to talk to each other four million years ago in order to attract, warn, and comfort one another. That means they began coordinating their behavior not just via their body language—gestures and mimicry, violence and sexuality, approach and withdrawal, attentiveness and indifference. Instead, they proceeded indirectly through words, which do not actually refer to something already determined within the thing they are denoting. Instead, in each case their behavior had to be determined and motivated by these words in the context of their current usage. This has remained, right up to today, an issue in the theory of signs.


The reference to “words in the context of their current usage” means memory. We have to remember how words/signs are used. How does a community coordinate communal life via signs? A sign is the difference between signifier and signified. Some kind of understanding, even “misunderstanding,” must happen if communication is to continue. As long as one utterance can be linked up with a subsequent utterance, communication happens. Even if I think Hamlet might be your cat and I respond based on that thought, communication happens. We can keep talking. Tribal life is all about dealing with this experience, and tribal leaders are needed to resolve disputes. Thus, the origin of politics. In tribal societies, the leaders are often the best orators.

Speech presents or offers a surplus of meaning, as words can be understood differently and still be meaningful, and this relates to system memory–Do I remember Hamlet’s soliloquy?  Later, writing increases the surplus of meaning–a new catastrophe. A priesthood or priestly class (the “scribes” and Pharisees condemned by Jesus), not just a single tribal leader, emerges to deal with disputed interpretations of written texts. There is also a surplus of written texts, which means that some texts must be forbidden/excluded, as in the formation of a canon or the books of the Bible. A major problems arises in the inconsistency within texts. Within Christianity, or instance, inconsistencies in the Bible, as well as different interpretations, have led to sectarian divisions.

Print then increases the surplus even further, as everything that is printed and read can be negated, criticized, or understood differently, and (in contrast to spoken language) we assume that other people have read or at least can read what we’ve read. We can’t be expected to review or explain everything we’ve read before we write something. I can dispute your argument because I’ve read the research you’ve read as well as more recent research that questions your argument. Reason, in the age of print, is then put forward as the universal arbitrator of disputed meanings. Reason was supposed to replace the authority of the priest and sovereign. In a dispute, there are printed texts that we can both consult and discuss; there’s a sense of permanence in those printed words–a sense of the eternal. This is the power of a body of legal texts.

Time Differences: In establishing a sense of time, we can distinguish between past/future or repetition/non-repetition (ending, death). In the second case, a society repeats the same patterns every day or ceases to exist–thus the necessity to repeat rituals.

[A] tribal society seems to imagine that every individual event is only an element in the eternal recurrence of sameness. Time, as Jacques Derrida will later formulate it, is itself only a name for a boundary that was traversed.

Baecker, p. 8)

Tribal societies, founded in oral communication, do not seem to distinguish between the temporal and the eternal, but rather repetition and ending. Speaking happens in the present. Your spoken words vanish after you utter them, unless they are repeated or stitched into subsequent communication. So stories, such as folktales, have to be told and retold in a kind of ritual form. It is literate societies that distinguish between the temporal and the eternal because writing offers a sense of eternity. The ancient Egyptians, for example, had a concept of eternity because they had writing. When these societies wanted something to last forever, they might say “Let it be written.” The beginning of this was probably cave painting, which took animals or other living things out their moving, changing condition and fixed them on a cave wall.

In the above image, the animals and hunters are removed from their relational, social context and fixed on the wall, perhaps forever.

Writing changes the oral sense of time. Rather than ending or repetition (performing the same rituals and retelling the same stories, with incidental changes, over and over), writing allows society to distinguish between ephemerality (with its necessary repetitions) and eternity. Speech is ephemeral–conversations don’t last forever; writing is relatively permanent, at least until the text is lost. We can refer to a text (whether writing or cave paintings) later. Ephemerality is the marked side; it is the ordinary life of conversation and movement, beginning and ending. Eternity, in contrast, lies beyond the temporal horizon, in the unmarked space.

Along with time, space and movement through space (mobility) must be considered. In the age of (hand)writing, roughly corresponding to stratified society, things can be observed to move toward or away from a natural goal, purpose, or telos. We can move toward a horizon but never reach it. All movement can be seen as movement toward or away from a natural or quasi-natural place, the place where something should be or could be but isn’t. This entails ontology (which distinguishes between essence and accident), and it corresponds to a stratified society, the society that has writing in addition to, or overlaying, speech. This also entails ethics, morality, or normativity, which is about how people should behave but usually don’t.

So along with ethics, ontology and teleology emerge with writing. Writing selects from a surplus of written symbols. Only a few of the available orthographic marks (e.g., letters of the alphabet) can be used at one time. The possible marks are called media, and the selected marks are the form. Baecker again,

If we understand the cultural technique of teleology as an answer to the structural problem of writing’s surplus of symbols, then it connotes an ontological model of the world that still influences us today. First off, ontology means nothing more than being schooled in enquiry into appropriate places and looking into the very essence of every thing, event, and individual. That is enough of an upheaval because it does, after all, mean extracting things from their social relations, where they had previously seemed so securely and at the same time unsettlingly anchored. It is now possible to enquire into the essence of things and to emancipate them vis-à-vis their society—at least to the extent that they can then be dealt with in a way that registers very unpleasantly with philosophers concerned about telos.

pp 10-11

With writing, language is removed from its interactional, face-to-face context; a text must exist in some space, not just time. Things in general become mobile. We then start to wonder where the “proper place” of a thing is. Where did the thing begin, where is it going, where does it belong, etc. What is the permanent reality beyond changing appearance, the substance underneath changeable qualities? Thus we get ontology and teleology.

Let’s return to the first question: What holds society together? It is this question itself that keeps society together. Back to Baecker:

Our answer to the question this contribution’s title poses about what keeps society together thus reads as follows: society is kept together by a structure that guarantees the possibility of a surplus of meaning in combination with a culture of selectively using and reproducing this surplus. . . .

And the culture of selective use is explicable by the fact that there is no other way. Here, at the very latest, an evolutionary model of thinking appears. It does, however, turn Darwinian evolution upside down, because selection does not only materialize from selective breeders, standing in for nature, but also among the elements offering variations. . .

What is decisive in our attempt to answer the question posed, however, is how the combination of structure and culture we postulate comes about. We suspect: through the form of recursivity through which society is produced and reproduced. Society can only have recourse to itself when it reproduces itself. With that, however, it immediately manufactures the problem of its reproduction, too; that is, the complexity of the way it refers to meaning. So it is, in the truest sense of the word, the question itself—what keeps society together?—which keeps society together. That is because this question is concerned precisely with an operation of selective connection that reproduces society. This operation replaces the spirits, devils and gods, stories and natures we would have to depend on in any other case. In the next society, we have to depend on having made a start toward understanding something about the form of this operation.

pp. 17-18


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