Luhmann and the body, updated

In a post from about two years ago, when I was still pretty new to Social Systems Theory, I discussed an article by Francis Halsall. In one paragraph I wrote,

I like the article as  whole very much; however, I have some questions about this aspect of the argument. It is true  that bodies (or organic systems) perturb and structurally couple with social systems and I understand interpenetration, but I don’t find the above example persuasive, and I wish he had offered other examples or arguments. In my view, when a person walks into a shop and purchases a pack of cigarettes the body is of course a necessary condition, but I think the body is still excluded from the communication systems. Halsall states that “it is my body that crosses the road, walks into the shop and addresses the shopkeeper.” Yes, I get the first two parts, but I don’t see how the body addresses the shopkeeper. Words are necessary for that. If the person never says anything, or never engages with society through language, there would have been no interaction/irritation. There also has to be an exchange of money–the symbolically generalized communication medium of the economic system. If I walk into a shop and just stand in front the counter, not much is going to happen other than being asked to purchase something or step aside. My body can be a physical obstacle to other people but not much more. I can then be fined for loitering or physically removed from the premises.

Reading something by Judith Butler (Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly, 2015) has prompted me to revisit this post. Butler makes a good argument that the body, as well as collections of bodies, can make a claim to a space. For instance, by gathering in a public square to protest something, a group of people makes the claim that they have the right to be there. No one in the group has to say a word or even hold up a sign. The mere act of being there constitutes a claim. The claim performatively establishes the right to have rights.

So in reference to the above, I would revise this part:

I don’t see how the body addresses the shopkeeper. Words are necessary for that. If the person never says anything, or never engages with society through language, there would been no interaction/irritation.

If Butler is right, as a I think she is, then the mere act of walking into the store constitutes a claim that the person has the right to be there. All we have to do is recall the civil rights protesters who sat in at lunch counters, or Rosa Parks sitting in the whites-only section of the bus, or  countless other examples. In this sense, the human body becomes a communication medium, like the money, power, etc.

This relates to what I’ve written previously about protest (or social) movements. Somewhere I claimed that the Occupy Wall Street movement was unsuccessful because rhetoric alone doesn’t have an effect on the Wall Street bankers and investors; the protesters would have to use the medium of money to get Wall Street’s (or the one percent’s) attention. But those people who gathered in Zuccotti Park made a claim with their physical presence. They made the argument that they, or the 99%, are present and are not going anyway; they have the right to a place in America, which implies a livable life. The Civil Rights activists made the same argument.

Butler, elaborating on what post-humanist thinkers have said, also argues that the human body is not just the body bounded by skin. All bodies need support to live–social support and physical or technological support. And the body cannot really be thought of without these supports. For instance, a walkable surface is necessary for walking, which means that the streets and sidewalks we walk on belong to the assemblage of the body. So when protesters gather on the streets, the human bodies and the streets must be considered together. To take another example, a cane used by someone to enable walking becomes part of the body in the act of standing and walking. The glasses I wear (and my shoes, etc) become part of my body when I put them on. When I drive my car, my body and the car act as an assemblage.

So where does this leave us with Luhmann? We can begin by treating the body as a communication medium; it can make claims all by itself without words. But there is nothing in social systems theory that prevents us from treating the body as an assemblage. Although Luhmann treated the body as collection of organic systems (or flesh and bones), we can also include the supports that are necessary for that body to function. Those supports are structurally coupled with the physical body. My use of glasses is an instance of structural coupling. As Luhmann wrote,

coupling between system and environment concerns only structures and, as the case may be, everything in the environment that is relevant to these structures. Thus, on earth gravity is coordinated with the musculature of a living being that has to move in order to survive. . . . And we also observe the creation of possibilities for movement, which always emerge in coordination with conditions of life on earth. This is a case of structural coupling. (Introduction to Systems Theory, 85)

This is just another way of observing the body. It’s not about claiming that the body is this or is that. Radical constructivism doesn’t allow these kinds of ontological claims.

Butler’s argument aligns well with an argument made by Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos and Webb (2015). They use the word vulnerability rather than Butler’s precarity, which is needlessly jargony. This is how they discuss the body.

Thus, when we reference the body, we mean both the semantic construct of ‘body’ that all function systems possess as part of their idea of what a person is (for example, law’s legal person . . . or also protections of the legal body, for example habeas corpus, or the treatment of bodies in medicine), and the body as physical embodiment, corporeality. We use the concept of the body to incorporate a notion of the factually undeniable physical embodiment of humans . . . and their consequent vulnerability, as a means of bringing the concept of materiality to autopoiesis.


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