Art as the reactivation of eliminated possibilities

Following Bergson, Luhmann explores how time cannot be turned back in the way we can turn back a clock. Time is irreversible. If we have an opportunity to do something and we fail to do it, then that possibility is gone forever. We might later try to make up for the lost opportunity, but the new experience will be a different experience; it can never be what the missed opportunity might have been because everything else in the world, including oneself, has changed. The piece of cake I eat today cannot be the same piece of cake that chose not to eat yesterday. Even if it looks like the same piece of cake, it has changed since yesterday—it’s not as fresh. I am also a different person. That missed experience is gone. “The road not taken” can never be taken.

Art is different because it redeems possibilities from oblivion. As Luhmann argues,

What art aspires to could . . . be described as the reactivation of eliminated possibilities. . . . Art points out that the scope of the possible is not exhausted and it therefore generates a liberating distance from reality.


Theory of Society, vol. 1. p. 210

We can imagine far more than what can actually happen, and art redeems these imaginings from oblivion. If we simply imagine something without making it a reality, it disappears. Philip Roth‘s 2004 novel The Plot Against America might illustrate Luhmann’s point. In this alternate-history novel, Charles Lindbergh defeats Franklin Roosevelt in the 1940 presidential election. The nightmarish consequences of electing the Nazi-sympathizing aviator are then narrated. In The Ghost Writer, Roth creates an alternate history in which Anne Frank survives and escapes to America. In The Counterlife, Roth (or Nathan Zuckerman) creates different life trajectories for a single character. In one version, Henry Zuckerman dies on an operating table, while in another version he survives the surgery and moves to an Israeli kibbutz.

Luhmann also argues that art’s function

is to allow the world to appear in the world, to portray unity in unity, be it improved or (as now preferred) worsened [e.g., dystopia fiction]. . . .  The portrayal of the world in the world modifies the world itself in the sense of what is “not necessary as such.” The work of art provides its own proof of necessity–and this withholds it from the world. (210)

Though art is treated as an autopoietic function system along with politics, the economy, science, law, etc., a work of art is also a symbolically generalized communication media. This is shown when Luhmann writes,

In contrast to other symbolically generalized communication media, art uses perceptual media or, in the case of narrative, visualization.

Symbolically generalized communication media are also called “success media” because they increase the probability of a communicative offering being accepted. For instance, monetary payment is the symbolically generalized communication media (SGCM) of the economy. If a person desires something and asking for it isn’t enough, then money can be offered. Of course the money can be rejected, but money increases the probability of getting a yes. Similarly, in politics, when simply asking for something to happen, as in asking citizens to pay taxes, isn’t enough, politics uses its power, which is backed up by the possibility of force. Taxes can be forcefully taken because the political system has guns and prisons, and the vast majority of people accept the legitimacy of the political system’s use of its guns and jails. Power, then, is the “success media” of the political system.

However, the political system wants to avoid using these coercive means because once coercion is used there are fewer options and all of the responsibility falls on the shoulders of the power-holder. The prisoner simply has to go to prison, but the political system has to feed and clothe the inmate, provide basic healthcare, and protect the prisoner from other prisoners.

There are only two possible responses to any communicative offering: yes or no. It’s a two-sided form. A yes means communication can continue, while a no means some other tack must be taken–a new communicative offering, such as more money or more power–if the communication is to succeed. To be successful, art must get a yes. It must be accepted as a communicative offering. It must be accepted as art.

Every work of art represents a selection or a series of selections from among potentially infinite possibilities. There are many choices an artist must make when it comes to choreographing a dance, writing a novel, designing a building, painting a picture, performing a line in a script, etc. But when a work of art is truly successful it seems that the selections the artist made were the only right selections. Any change to the work would damage it. If we change one word in a Shakespeare play, that would damage the play–or at least that is our belief. Thus the work of art seems necessary even though it is contingent. We feel that the play was written exactly as it was supposed to have been written even though there was never any “supposed to.” This is a paradox of the possible becoming necessary. As Luhmann puts it,

Whether art can motivate people to accept the selections it offers depends on the individual work of art [as distinguished from the art system], making it plausible that it itself (as opposed to the world) has to be the way it is, even though it is made and no model for it exists anywhere.

Theory of Society, vol. 1., 211

Thus, we (are taught to) believe that every brush stoke of The Mona Lisa, for example, was executed exactly as it was supposed to be–as if he were copying a model or ideal form. The improbable acceptance of this work of art has been made probably through education—as anyone who dismisses this painting will be considered uneducated. Thus, we could me to believe that Leonardo did not make any mistakes with The Mona Lisa. To change the painting would be to ruin it. However, we can envision changing laws, policies, or social conditions—for the better or the worse. We can try to improve or reform things that exist outside the realm of art.

Only the art system can observe art as art. The economy can only observe it as exchange value, as an investment. The healthcare system observes art in terms of its possible therapeutic use. Education sees art’s possible pedagogical uses. Religion sees art as a means to draw closer to the transcendent.

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