Structural Coupling and Time

Communication systems (i.e., social systems) are only directly coupled to other communication systems and consciousness systems (minds). This means that communication cannot be directly influenced by human brains, hearts, kidneys, or any other physiological factors because consciousness acts as a filter between brains and communication. Nor are they directly influenced by matter. If communication had to take into consideration an unfiltered world, it could not sustain itself. Consciousness must reduce the complexity of the world, by limiting what can be heard or seen, etc., before communication can come into being as an autopoietic system. A great deal must be excluded. Thus, humans don’t hear or smell everything a dog can hear or smell. Also, operations such as the transmission of nerve impulses happen too rapidly for communication to handle.

Every kind of system functions with its own sense of time, and the difference in the operational speeds of different systems is a decisive factor. Thus, the reasons for the direct reliance of communication on consciousness

are likely to lie in the temporality of the operations not only of the neurophysiological and conscious systems, but of communication systems. Always with an eye on their structural couplings, we must take a closer look at this temporal structure of autopoietic systems; for, although the world exists simultaneously for every system, brains, consciousness systems, and communication systems form differing sequences of events and thus operate at different speeds. What consciousness perceives as intensity is developed in the nervous system by a sequence of impulses. There are such time differences in the experience of volition and emotion, too. The consciousness has accordingly already been in action when communication produces events. The consciousness, we could say, interprets what has already happened in the brain as a decision, a feeling, or an insight. Communication actualizes and thus captures in consciousness what has already been decided. For its part, this peculiar belatedness in structural couplings remains unnoticed. It is interpreted as simultaneity. It is, as it were, translated into the assumption of a reality that exists independently of cognitive operations. The need to synchronize time to suit the requirements of the given system’s own autopoiesis thus explains the emergence of a world that is the way it is independently of cognition. Systems convert temporal relations into reality without specifically anticipating particular meaning forms. (Luhmann, The Theory of Society, vol 1, pp. 64-65)

In the case of the structural coupling between consciousness and the central nervous system, the nervous system and brain will have already completed their work when consciousness takes notice. For instance, if a gunshot goes off in a room, a person will feel startled (intensity) only after the auditory nerves and brain have finished their work, but we can’t consciously perceive the time lag. This kind of structural coupling convinces us that the world exists exactly as we perceive it and when we perceive it.

Temporality allows the formation of structure. The temporal dimension enables the before/after distinction, which in turn allows for comparison. A unit of meaning is only meaningful within the temporal, factual, or social dimension. An event alone, such as the sound a gunshot, cannot be meaningful in itself. The event only gains meaning, or enters a meaningful structure, because there was a pre-existing meaningful structure (or memory) and there is an expectation of subsequent, related events. The gun shot also startles, unless we are firing the gun or otherwise expecting the sound. If the sound doesn’t startle, that’s because it was expected. And expectations are structures.

The temporal dimension also applies to other autopoietic systems. For instance, function systems operate at different speeds. The mass media system works very quickly in comparison to other systems, particularly law, education, and science. The economy also works fast.

Luhmann goes on to write,

All operations in coupled systems are only events that are over as soon as they occur. They must therefore produce the difference from the environment through a sequence of matching operations. This requires memories specific to systems. . . . Every system therefore projects synchronization with other systems and similarity of other-referential matters into the world, although there are neither checks nor any meta-guarantees for agreement. (65)

Events are over as soon as they occur, but they can be compared with what has comes before and what comes after.


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