Interactional Codes

Luhmann discusses various kinds of social system–e.g., society, function systems, organizations, interactions, protest movements. I want to explore interaction systems.

There is a horizon of possibilities for interactional codes–the codes used in the fleeting conversations or communicative interactions that happen all the time. There is the code of polite conversation, which is pleasure/ennui. Polite conversation is observed as either pleasurable or boring, and boring conversations do not last long. It’s an either/or. The pleasure is what allows the interaction to reproduce itself in time. Conversations can go on for hours if they give pleasure. But even the most pleasurable conversations eventually become boring, or they are ended before they can become boring. The pleasure/ennui form, not just the pleasure side, generates the system of polite conversation.

A different code produces intimate relations. In contemporary society, this is the code of disclosure/nondisclosure. This code is tied to the personal relations/impersonal relations distinction. In personal relations the participants disclose information about themselves that they do not share in impersonal relations. Only modern society, with its nuclear families and domestic privacy, allows this distinction to take hold. Disclosing personal information about oneself in the context of an impersonal relation violates a norm, and for this reason it tends to cause discomfort–as when in an interaction between employee and employer or student and teacher, one participant starts to talk about his/her personal problems. An exception would be client-therapist or patient-doctor interaction, but even that kind of disclosure is expected to be relevant to the therapeutic purpose–i.e., relevant to the healthcare function system. In any of these case, however, one person might choose to listen politely but will not typically reciprocate. But in intimate relations, the disclosure has to be reciprocal because one person will stop disclosing information if the other person just listens without ever disclosing anything about themselves.

As Luhmann writes,

The new semantics of intimacy to be developed can base itself on a factor which has never before influenced symbolic properties, namely the difference between impersonal and personal relationships. . . [The] difference that now determines the form the code takes lies at the level of social relations, in which the individual can or cannot immerse his whole self. The individual can–and this is new–provide cover for most of the demands made by his life only through impersonal relationships, i.e. through relationships in which he cannot communicate about himself, or, at the most, only within the narrow limits of a particular social system. This condition includes the actual creation of the self, namely one’s personal development in the context of school and professional career. (Love as Passion, 152)

The complexity of possible interactions is reduced through coding. The codes tell us what kind of interaction we are dealing with and what is expected. It would be inappropriate to disclose intimate personal information in casual conversation, and such an attempt would usually be met with negative feedback. While positive feedback signals that continued disclosure is expected to continue, negative feedback would signal that the disclosure should stop. The code, in other words, regulates the interaction–it sets a horizon for appropriate communications.

Another variety of interaction system could be called elevator conversation. There are strict, unwritten rules about how to conduct this kind of interaction. Business conversation or negotiation (not to be confused with economic communication, which relies on the medium of money) would be another example.

We might call these different varieties of interaction programmes. Programmes provide the content for abstract (content-free, context-free) codes.

Coding serves to overcome the improbability of communication, including interaction systems. For instance, it is improbable that one would disclose deeply personal information to another person, but the code of intimate relations makes it possible–and and even expected/normal. Personal relations offer a context to talk about oneself.

There are many programs within personal (or intimate) relations; as programs, these are flexible and changeable, but the code disclosure/nondisclosure remains the same. [Note, this is my claim, not Luhmann’s]. A few programs are close friendship, love, marriage, and sexual relations. These all involve some kind of personal disclosure, but they don’t have to be combined. In contemporary western cultures, we can can have close friendship without love or sex, love without marriage, marriage without love, sex without marriage, marriage without sex, love without sex, etc. As Dustin Kidd wrote, in a 1999 essay posted online:

In this century, the feminist movement and the sexual revolution changed everything. Neither the procreative nor the recreational aspects of sex need be confined to marriage. All programs for the codification of love have been rejected as patriarchal and archaic, and have yet to be replaced.

The association of intimate relations with morality seems to be a case of structural coupling or interpenetration. There may be a co-evolution between programs of the morality system and the intimate relations system. Moral communication is a social system, and it irritates and is irritated by other social systems.

Programs are associated with culture. Culture, in turn, according to Dirk Baecker, selects from a horizon of possibilities. Culture is a two-side form. See a previous blog post:

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. . .  (Laermans)

We need to differentiate society and culture.

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. (Laermans)

Correct/incorrect action is about norms. Cultures reproduce norms. Making intimate disclosures would be observed as incorrect in polite or impersonal conversation, as well as in “elevator conversation” or business conversation. We learn these things as we are enculturated.


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