Affect, emotion, and resonance capability

This is a draft of a paper I will present at the University of East Anglia this week.

My aim in this paper is to apply systems theory as developed by the German social theorist Niklas Luhmann to take a fresh look at the perennial theme of rhetorical persuasion. I will begin by placing the paper in the context of affect theory; then I will offer a brief overview of systems theory, and finally I will try to bring systems theory, affect theory, and rhetorical theory together. Ultimately, I will argue that it’s not just people and even nonhuman animals that experience affect, but that social systems such the global economy, politics, the law, science, art, and education also affect and are affected by their environments.

One way of describing affect in terms energy transfer. For instance, Laurie Gries (2015. Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach to Visual Rhetoric) writes,

By affect I am referring to energy transfer and sense appeals that are material, autonomous and dynamic and that register in bodily experience before cognition takes place. Affect is important to rhetoric in that it make bodies vulnerable, a condition arising out of responsiveness to others . . .  that is necessary for persuasion and symbolic action to occur. . . Affect is always transmitted in that it spreads, contaminates, and is absorbed by various bodies; as such, affect is contagious.

I want to take this conversation in a new direction by discussing affective engagement between autopoietic (or self-producing and reproducing) systems, and rather than using the vocabulary of energy transfer or contagion (terms that evoke visions of passive receivers or hosts for parasites), I will speak of resonance between operationally closed systems. A basic principle of social systems theory is that operationally closed systems perturb or irritate one another, and we may connect systems theory and affect theory by thinking of the irritation between social systems as affect.

Luhmann used a German term that translates as resonance capability, and my claim is that affect is all about resonance capability. For instance, in teaching we say we want students to “relate to” or connect with the course content. We want students to care about the subject matter or see some connection to their own lives or something that already interests them. In other words, we want the course material to resonate with the students, rather than leaving them feeling alienated. The opposite of resonance is alienation, or the sense that the world no longer speaks to us; nothing moves us anymore (Hartmut Rosa). For instance, if there is a famine in South Sudan and we want other people to care about this problem and, if possible, do something, this means we want the famine in South Sudan to resonate with people. Ultimately, we want the event to resonate with organizations that have the means to do something, such as governments, federations or governments, NGOs, churches, etc. We might say we are trying to persuade an audience to care about the issue. But I prefer to the term resonance because persuasion carries associations of a passive object that is manipulated by an active subject, but systems theorists think not in terms of subject and objects but systems and environments.

From a systems-theoretical view, there is not one universe that contains subjects and objects. There are as many worlds as there are systems because every system creates its own environment in the form an unmarked space. This means every psychic system (which we might also call mind or consciousness), as well as function systems such as the economy, experiences its own unique world. And while systems are perturbed or irritated by their environments, nothing in a system’s environment can directly cause a specific effect or outcome in the system. This explains why persuasion is so difficult. For instance, in a classroom the students are “black boxes” to the teacher as well as to each other. Teachers can only make guesses about what is going on in a student’s mind, or psychic system. Each system works according to its own governing distinctions. For instance, the primary distinction that concerns the professor might be truth/non-truth, while a student’s primary distinction might be entertaining/not-entertaining. This means we don’t experience the same world. So rather than persuasion, we might think in terms of providing irritations or planting seeds that might germinate in the future. When it comes to function systems, the art system might irritate politics, or another function system, but art cannot actually persuade politics or any other system. In less complex societies, art tends to serve religion or politics, but under modern functional differentiation art gains operational autonomy.

Following George Spenser-Brown’s calculus of forms, autopoietic systems are not treated as objects or substances in the ontological sense; they are not wholes composed of parts or substances with qualities. Systems are differences—they are system/environment differences which are produced by the systems themselves as the system draws a distinction between a marked and unmarked space.

Furthermore, for systems theorists, contemporary society does not consist of flesh and blood human beings. Rather, society is one vast communication system that develops its complexity through the emergence of autonomous subsystems, including the economy, the legal system, politics, mass media, science, education, and art—each with its own communication medium. Luhmann argues that prior to the eighteenth century, societies differentiated themselves by segmentation (tribes, clans), centralization (or the center/periphery difference), or stratification (inherited, family-based rank). These forms of differentiation might overlap and co-exist, but one form of differentiation must take precedence any one time.

The functionally differentiated society is a global society because function systems cannot be contained within regional or national borders. For instance, the contemporary economy is clearly globalized; in the science system, researchers share research and collaborate internationally; we also have international laws and courts, global efforts to eradicate disease and poverty, and so forth. In other words, the old segmented, centralized, and stratified societies have been overruled by functional differentiation, with none of the function systems having a privileged position. This means that we are living in a global society without a center or an ultimate authority, and it reproduces itself from moment to moment without any long-term plan.

It must be emphasized that older forms of social differentiation are not replaced but only overruled by newer ones. Thus, we still observe segmentation of families residing in private homes; however, abused or neglected children and battered spouses are now afforded protection by the legal system, and children are subject to compulsory education. We also observe centers of power with weaker peripheries. But the same laws apply in the center and the periphery, and—very importantly—the mass media system extends into the peripheries. Social class stratification also quite obviously persists, and organizations still employ hierarchies and rankings. But the difference is that today social rankings and other hierarchies are no longer viewed as fixed in nature or in the structure of the world because functional differentiation overrules these kinds of differences.

Another important point of systems theory is that function systems cannot directly communicate with each other because each draws its own distinctions and uses its own communication medium. Operationally closed systems can only irritate one another. For instance, politics communicates in the medium of power and the economy communicates in the medium of money. The political system distinguishes between power and lack of power, and the economy distinguishes between having a commodity and wanting a commodity. In other words, operationally closed systems are “black boxes” to each other. An operationally closed system can only make guesses about what is going in its environment, and it forms expectations, or expectational structures, to cope with its environment. In this way, an autopoietic system reproduces itself from moment to moment without any teleological goal.

But autopoiesis alone cannot account for system evolution or sustainability. Something called structural coupling is necessary, and this concerns a system’s environment. Environmental irritation is necessary because without irritation there would be no reason for a new system operation, and the system would cease to exist. A system operation, for instance an economic transaction, happens in a moment and immediately pass away. But systems differ from mere operations in that they include structures, and these structures emerge to deal with environmental irritations. For social systems, structures consist of expectations; they are expectations for what kind of environmental irritation will be encountered, and they allow the system to recognize surprises. Irritants resonate with expectational structures. Resonance, moreover, is always selective, and whatever does not resonate with a system is treated as noise by that system. For instance, if I’m in elevator and my fellow elevator passengers are speaking a language I don’t understand, their words just register to me noise. But of course, systems can and, indeed, must learn. This means that by learning a new language, or by learning anything, a person (or more precisely a psychic system) can enhance their own resonance capability. This is also why, for instance, learning something about art history or a particular cultural heritage makes the difference between pleasure and boredom in an art museum.

In other words, a system’s structures couple with their environments selectively. An interesting example Luhmann gives regards the human brain. Particular brain structures (e.g., auditory system, visual system) couple with particular types of environmental stimuli. The brain is only able to develop its own complexity through specialization, or by limiting its sensitivity to environmental irritations.  As Luhmann writes, in the case of vision and hearing, the brain

possesses a very narrow bandwidth of sensibilities that reduces what can be seen, limits the spectrum of colors, and equally reduces what can be heard. It is only because things are this way that the system is not overburdened with external influences, and only because things are this way that learning can take place and complex structures can be built inside the brain. (2013b, p. 86).

In other words, a system, in order to avoid overburdening itself, can only respond to one kind of irritation, just as particular neurons are only receptive to, or only resonant with, certain neurotransmitters. Thus, an organ such as the brain develops structural complexity to deal with all sorts of environmental irritations. No living system or social system could survive for long if it had to process all environmental irritations.

Systems constrain their own potential complexity so that they do not have to respond to every potential environmental irritation.  For instance, the modern political system invented the constitution to constrain its own potential complexity. Through constitutions politics structurally couples itself to the law. This does not mean, however, that the law controls the political system because the irritations are mutual. So while politics, through regulation, taxation, and government spending, irritates the economy, politics cannot directly cause a particular effect in the economy because the economy is not a trivial input-output machine. All politics can do is perturb the economy, and the economy alone determines how it responds to the irritations. Different systems, as I’ve said, are black boxes to each other; there is no such thing as direct communication, and any attempt at persuasion must deal with the target system’s own operations, and unintended consequences are inevitable.

This rather long introduction to systems theory is relevant to affect theory and rhetoric because system differentiation allows more sensitivity to problems throughout society. That is to say, in modern society, functional differentiation makes global society more self-aware. In contrast, under segmented, stratified, and centralized differentiation, society will likely be unaware of most of the suffering of human beings and all the other living things on this planet. The problems will not resonate beyond a very small social sphere. For instance, a member of a family or a tribal clan may suffer needlessly and die unknown to anyone beyond that tiny social circle. Entire regional societies, such as the Incas or Aztecs, can perish without sending a ripple into other regional isolated societies or civilizations.

As stated before, in systems-theoretical terms, we may use the term resonance or resonance capability in place of affect. Affect is about connection or relationship, or a system being irritated by something in its environment. Luhmann equates resonance with a system’s sensitivity, and he suggests that

the differentiation of functional systems has the function of increasing chances for rationality, irritability, sensitivity, and resonance in the functional systems. It makes it possible for the ability to be disturbed to increase and at the same time provides counter-measures or procedural concepts, but only at the level of society in its totality.  (138)

So we can speak of the economy, the political system, science, art, mass media, education, and other social systems has having resonance capability, or the capacity to be affected by specific environmental irritations. We needn’t limit affect to living systems.

Essentially, a functionally differentiated, global society has greater opportunities for affective resonance in comparison with a segmented, centralized, or stratified societies. For instance, in a centralized society, such as pre-modern China, the ability to affect the emperor decreased the further one moved in space away from the emperor’s throne. There might be a famine is a distant province, and if no one informs the emperor of this news he will not be affected/disturbed by it. This abstract social form is made concrete by placing the emperor’s throne in the center of the Forbidden City. Similarly, in pre-revolutionary France, the king’s throne room was located in the center of the Palace of Versailles, and from there the king received news from the kingdom and beyond as well as pleas for assistance; however, from this place Louis XVI was not able to adequately deal with the crises of late 18th century France, such as the high price of grain and, therefore, bread.

This changes in more complex society, meaning a society with greater system differentiation. Luhmann identified four kinds of modern social system—organizations, function systems, protest movements, and global society itself. I will focus here on organizations, which system theory treats as networks of decisions. Some of the most powerful organizations are governments, which are organizations with the power to make collectively binding decisions.

Modern society is unique in the vast number and variety of organizations that are devoted to a single issue, or that specialize by limiting their resonance to a single issue. For every kind of suffering or injustice, there seems to be at least one organization devoted to putting an end to it. There are organizations devoted to issues like ending hunger that spread their tentacles into all areas of global society and are irritated by events that would not resonate with the leadership of a centralized or stratified society. Small, efficient organizations can respond to problems long before they ever resonate with a president or prime minister or parliament. So scholars interested in rhetoric or affect theory, might want to research how organizations are both affected by and affect other social systems.

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