Crossing, Conditioning, and Closure

In a patriarchal culture, men are supposed to be assertive and women are supposed to be passive and agreeable. Active/passive is a two-sided form, and the distinction of active and passive must be crossable, allowing for oscillation. It must be possible for something usually observed as active to also be observable as passive. (As in politics where the government and the opposition must be able to trade places, and in law where something can go from being illegal to being legal or a defendant can pass from innocence to guilt (and vise versa) ). But when women cross the boundary from the passive to the active side, they are often criticized or attacked. This has happened to Hillary Clinton for a long time now. When people of color cross the distinction of weak/strong or content/ambitious, they also suffer negative feedback.

Crossing is conditioned, meaning obstacles are erected to discourage crossing a distinction. Or we might say there is a lot of friction produced by trying to cross over.

In Social Systems, Luhmann wrote,

Out of the relation among elements emerges the centrally important systems-theoretical concept of conditioning. Systems are not merely relations (in the plural!) among elements. The connections among relations must somehow be regulated. This regulation employs the basic form of conditioning. That is to say, a determinate relation among elements is realized only under the condition that something else is or is not the case. Whenever we speak of “conditions” or “conditions of possibility” (in the epistemological sense), this is what we mean. (23)

In Theory of Society, volume 1, Luhmann puts is slightly differently:

Coding closes the system. It leaves everything else open. But the decision whether to accept or reject communicated offers of meaning cannot be left open. The bifurcation the code imposes leads the system to develop conditions pointing to when acceptance or rejection is more appropriate. As systems theory knows, conditionings are among the most general requirements of all system formation. They establish nonarbitrary relationships in the sense that determining certain characteristics limits the scope for determining others. In other terms, considering how we obtain information about a system, we speak of redundancies limiting the variety of the system: where a certain characteristic occurs, others are more or less probable. (138)

So conditioning limits the variety or uncertainty of the system; it limits what is accepted as meaningful, or what may be connected. Thus, Luhmann rejects Ashby’s law of requisite variety, which is an open-system cybernetics principle.

Crossing the boundary is necessary for continued autopoiesis. If there are too many conditions on crossing, the system becomes rigid. For instance, in terms of social class, it is good for the economy if the rich can become poor and the poor can become rich. Otherwise, we have stratified, feudal-type society. In sports, it would become very boring if a particular team won all the time. Every team has to be beatable. The oscillation between winning and losing is what drives the autopoiesis of the sports system. (In this case, we might think of winning and losing as twin horizons–not crossable boundaries, but horizons where one must eventually turn back.) For the system of medicine (or healthcare), patients have to potentially oscillate between sickness and nonsickness. It has to be possible for the not-sick to become sick and the the sick to become not-sick. In religion, it has to be possible to cross from ordinary, “corrupt” life to transcendence or grace. And it has to be possible to fall back into the ordinary, quotidian reality. Even angels can fall. There is no third state. As Luhmann writes,

[The] concept of of autopoietic closure makes it possible to understand the function of enforced binary choices. The system can continue its autopoiesis or it can stop it. It can can continue to live, to produce conscious states, to communicate with the alternative to come to an end. There are, with respect to autopoiesis, no third states.

“Autopoiesis of Social Systems,” in Essays on Self-Reflection, p. 13


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