Response to Paul Stenner’s article on Emotion and Luhmann

After some discussion and further reading, I now see some of what I say here as confused. I was still struggling to understand some concepts, such as liminality. I also didn’t understand the three dimensions of meaning in Luhmannian theory. But I will leave the post here.

Paul Stenner published a very interesting, very clearly written article in 2004 titled “Is Autopoietic Systems Theory Alexithymic? Luhmann and the Socio-Psychology of Emotions” (Soziale Systeme 10 (2004), Heft 1, S. 159-185).

Stenner begins by summarizing Luhmann’s very  limited (one and a half pages) discussion of emotion in Social Systems:

The emotions, Luhmann states, represent a »sphere of problems that until now have proved quite difficult for sociology« (1995, 274). For this reason, he suggests, they have typically either been omitted from research, treated using unconventional methods, or studied indirectly in terms of their social stimulation, communication, cooling out, and so on. In Social Systems he dedicates a few paragraphs to the problem of emotions as such in the chapter on the individuality of psychic systems. This chapter is itself peripheral to the main project of a theory of social systems, since its focus is primarily on consciousness rather than communication. Hence it should be recognised that for Luhmann the emotions represent a peripheral aspect of a peripheral theme since, as a sociologist, he is happy to articulate an account according to which the true nature of emotion is psychic.

In this context, emotion is first introduced as »the process of adaptation to fulfilment or disappointment« of claims. The concept of claim is elucidated as a sub-category of expectation, the latter being the form in which a system exposes itself to its indeterminable environment. By way of expectations, psychic systems and also, as I will discuss later, social systems bring the environment into a form that can be used operatively on a psychic level. That is to say, possibilities are projected which can be confirmed or disconfirmed, fulfilled or disappointed. For psychic systems,  expectations thus organise the autopoiesis of consciousness by ›probabilising‹ the improbabilility of environmental complexity through the pre-structuring of connections between conscious contents. Expectations act as grids that pre-structure given, unmanageable complexity into an autopoietically operable form. That is to say, expectation yields a simple bifurcation in the face of the world: it is disappointed or it is fulfilled. (161)

So the psychic system establishes structures of expectation to turn improbability into probability. The psychic system has expectations for what is likely to occur, and these expectations can be confirmed or disconfirmed. Claims, as a subcategory of emotion, have enhanced salience. The disappointment of claims registers emotionally as some variety of surprise. Stenner argues that claims have a sense of rights, as if a person feels s/he has right to confirmation of claims.

If a claim is an expectation we feel a right to, then it must be recognised that we are dealing with a primal notion of right (‹‹ a proto-right ‹‹) prior to its division into moral, legal and epistemic orders. . . . [For] Luhmann, the shift from expectation to claim increases the probability of the experience of emotion, just as a retreat from claim to mere expectation reduces it.

Stenner, p. 162

Stenner goes further into this argument about rights in another 2004 article, “Psychology and the Political: On the psychology of natural right and the political origins of modern psychology.”

Stenner proceeds to demonstrate the limitations of Luhmann’s conceptualization of emotion. He argues that Luhmann’s theory is overly cognitive–that is, it doesn’t take into account the irritations between body (the organic, biological system), psychic system, and social systems. Luhmann, in this view, focuses only on the psychic or consciousness aspect of emotion. Stenner argues that emotions are neither completely inside nor completely outside of these systems.

Emotions, I argue, represent a threshold zone or domain in which the norms of social systems are bundled together with states of consciousness and bodily processes (166). . . . . As phenomena of the threshold, they [emotions] exist neither completely outside nor completely inside social, psychic or organic systems (169).

This is where I see a possible hole in Stenner’s argument. While Stenner presents persuasive evidence on the limitations of Luhmann’s view of emotion, showing, for instance, that the relevant research Luhmann cites in Social Systems is outdated, his application of systems theory seems flawed. That is to say, from a systems-theoretical perspective, I don’t see how something can exist neither completely inside nor completely outside these systems. For one thing, it’s more consistent with Luhmannian theory to speak of observations rather than what exists or doesn’t exist. Whatever exists, or rather whatever is observed, is observed by a system. Emotions only come into being as observations. Yes, there is structural coupling or interpenetration or irritation between systems, but any observation happens within a system. A system cannot observe its environment; it can only have vague expectations for what is “out there.” Any irritation is processed as information within a system. Neither can the operations of different systems overlap. There are no third options or liminal zones where system operations (or observations) are concerned.

On the other hand . . . this might be about second-order observation–that is, observation of observation. There is a re-entry, in other words. A social system, such as an interaction system, can observe (discuss) one participant’s emotion. The interaction system could be a casual conversion or a psychotherapy session.

Systems make distinctions, creating a boundary, and then indicate an inside that is not an outside. As George Spencer-Brown argued,

a universe comes into being when a space is severed or taken apart. The skin of a living organism cuts off an outside from an inside. So does the circumference of a circle in a plane. By tracing the way we represent such a severance, we can begin to reconstruct, with an accuracy and coverage that appear almost uncanny, the basic forms underlying linguistic, mathematical, physical, and biological science, and can begin to see how the familiar laws of our own experience follow inexorably from the original act of severance.

A psychic system can observe emotion by thinking about it (if thought is the medium of the psychic system) and if these thoughts are placed into communication, social systems observe them; they are observed by or through the medium of language. But affects, at least according to Massumi (and this is questionable), are different from emotions. In this view, affects are organic phenomena and, as such, are not temporalized–

Note: Connect to Brier article on cybersemiotics.

Stenner is right that emotions are tied to organic and social systems. In a laboratory, if a particular region of a brain is stimulated the person can feel an emotion. Or on an everyday basis, what we eat and drink and do with our body (e.g., run a marathon) stimulates emotion. Of in terms of social systems, if I live in a puritanical culture, the sex drive will have particular emotional associations. Nonetheless, these emotions are observed by psychic or social systems. They are not, at least from my perspective, phenomena of a threshold zone.

Update: In response to an earlier draft of this post, André Reichel wrote,

The crucial term in Stenner’s argument appears to be ‘completely’. This would imply that he does not see emotions as neither/nor in one system or the other but as-well-as: emotions can be observed on both sides of the distinction. This works if we understand the relation of e.g. the mind and emotions as one of re-entry: emotions are observed from the perspective of the mind as a re-entry of the distinction between mind and body within the mind. Emotions are then the re-entry operation itself i.e. emotions relate mind and body to each other. As such they are neither exclusively here nor there but constitute the binding together of here and there.

Carlton Clark What about relating psyche and society to each other? I am also hung up on the observation question.

André Reichel If we stick to Luhmann: language. This then implies that language is both medium and re-entry (in this special case).

Carlton Clark My other question is about selection. The word selection (or select) doesn’t appear in Stenner’s article. As I understand it, if the organic, psychic, and social systems irritate one other, a system must make a contingent selection from from a horizon of possibilities. For instance, the psychic system selects from among a horizon possibilities. Thus, an emotion is a selection, or a reduction of affective (organic) complexity. Something happens physiologically, outside of consciousness (but which might be detectable by a technology like skin conductance detector), and the psychic system selects from that complexity. I see selection as happening inside a system, as a system operation/observation. Two systems cannot make the same selection. The same emotion cannot be selected by the psychic and the social system. I don’t see any of this happening in a threshold zone, which seems to be an ill-defined concept. This is Stenner’s “domain in which the norms of social systems are bundled together with states of consciousness and bodily processes.” If “emotions are observed from the perspective of the mind as a re-entry of the distinction between mind and body within the mind,” as you say, how is that operation observed by social system (as communication) as well? I don’t get Stenner’s bundling together process.

André Reichel The social system can observe the psychic system via the re-entry of language. And in this relation, the re-entry of emotion between mind and body can indirectly be observed, but only according to the three selections: first, the selection of the mind what to regard as emotions; second, the selection of the mind what to utter in language; third, the selection of the social system what of these utterances to process as communication.

Given the idea of cybersemiotics and that the body gives signs, there is an interpenetration of the body with the social system that can be understood as a re-entry from body to social system i.e. an observation of the social system of the difference between itself and (a) body. This re-entry could then be a sign, some form of body language or facial movements. The body would select what signs to evoke and the social system would select what of these evocations to process as communication. With the form of re-entry, both sides of the distinction are not only tied together but the difference shows up on both side


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