Luhmann and Matter

One of the basic premises of Luhmannian social systems theory is that society consists of communication and only communication. It does not consists of human beings, narratives, norms, values, languages, or anything else that we commonly consider essential to society. One might assume that social systems theory has nothing to say about matter. When discussing organizations, which Luhmann argues consist entirely of decision-based communication (or decision-communication), one might ask about buildings, desks, chairs, telephones, computers, electricity, as well as human beings. Aren’t these things essential to most organizations? Shut off the electricity or the Internet access and most organizations stop functioning. Thus, a common criticism of social systems theory relates to materialism or material agency. For instance, Dennis Schoeneborn, while demonstrating the value of Luhmann’s work for organizational theorists, points to its limitations:

Notwithstanding the merits of Luhmann’s approach, its accessibility tends to be limited due to the hermetic terminology that it employs and the fact that it neglects the role of material agency in the communicative construction of organizations.

Dennis Schoeneborn. “Organization as Communication: A Luhmannian Perspective”

The relevant point here is not the hermetic terminology (most social theory seems hermetic to me) but the claim that the theory “neglects the role of material agency.” In an otherwise exemplary article, Schoenborn goes on to make the dubious claim that

Luhmann (2000) . . . tends to neglect the dimension of materiality; his
definition of communication (Luhmann, 1992) primarily centers on face-to-face interactions.

p. 1

Later in the article, Schoenborn writes,

Luhmann indeed stresses the importance of non-human agency (in his case, by conceptualizing social systems as consisting of communication processes) but largely neglects the aspect of materiality (by prioritizing talk over text in his focus on face-to-face interactions).

p. 23

Although we cannot (and are not expected to) precisely interpret the words “tends to” and “primarily,” and “largely,” these two statements ignore everything Luhmann wrote about symbolically generalized communication media–power, money, scientific truth, educational credentials (and other forms of symbolic capital), etc. Luhmann called these kinds of media “success media.” I would even say that Luhmann was least interested in face-to-face communication, or interaction systems. According to Luhmann,

Symbolically generalized communication media establish a novel link between conditioning and motivation. They gear communication in a given media area, for example, in the money economy or the exercise of power in political office, to certain conditions that enhance the chances of acceptance even in the case of “uncomfortable” communication. For example, goods are supplied or services rendered if (and only if) they are paid for. Government authorities are obeyed under the threat of physical force and because it must be assumed that society regards this threat as legitimate (e.g., as lawful).

Theory of Society, vol. 1, 121-22

In other words, when talking (or writing) isn’t enough, we rely on
symbolically generalized communication media. If I want to a meal served to me in a restaurant, it’s not enough for me to ask politely for the meal; I have to pay for it, or implicitly promise to pay for it before I leave the restaurant. Of if I want to assign a grade to a student’s work, issue a speeding ticket, write a medical prescription, send someone to prison, etc., I must have the authority to do so. That authority is a symbolically generalized communication medium, which I will abbreviate at SGCM. Social capital is another form of SGCM.

But who grants the authority to the professor, police officer, doctor, or court? In the case of a professor having the authority to assign a grade, the university grants the professor the authority to the professor. By hiring the professor and making grading a required task, the university acts with the professor, or enlists the professor in an action. But we can also bring in the accrediting agency that allows the university to operate as a university. And, in the United States, the Department of Education must authorize each regional accrediting agency. Here we can bring in actor-network theory. The university, the accrediting agency, and the Department of Education are nonhuman actors, or actants (see Latour).

In looking for causes or the responsible party, how far back in the chain of actants do we go? Should a dissatisfied student blame the professor or the university or the accrediting agency or the Department of Education? Traditional notions of morality break down when we cannot blame a single actor.

At this point, one might observe that I was supposed to be discussing material things. So what about things like printing presses, telegraph wires, coal, copper, and steam engines? Well, we can consider these things actants as well. If the university’s intranet (another actant) is down, the professor cannot submit semester grades. As Latour writes,

The attribution to one actor of the role of prime mover in no way weakens the necessity of a composition of forces to explain the action. It is by mistake or unfairness, that our headlines read, “Man flies,” “Woman goes into space.” Flying is a property of the whole association of entities that includes airports and planes, launch pads and ticket counters. B-52s do not fly, the US Air Force flies. Action is simply not a property of humans but of an association of actants. . .

[G]oals are redefined by association with nonhuman actants, and . . . action is a property of the whole association, not particularly of those actants called human.

Bruno Latour. “On Technical Mediation–Philosophy, Sociology, Genealogy,” 35-36.

To approach these questions from another angle, we can look a recent paper written by Levi Bryant, where he argues that Luhmann missed, at least more most of his career, something important. Bryant writes,

In . . . Theory of Society, Niklas Luhmann, reviewing the various theories of society in very broad strokes, says that society is either conceived as an assemblage of people and their relations, or that it is a product of consensus, or that societies are defined by territories. For his part, Luhmann perhaps advocates the most radical position of all, arguing that people belong to the environment of society and that society consists entirely and solely of communications. . . .

What is missed here is that societies exist in an interface with the broader natural world upon which they are dependent both for food and various forms of energy, but also all of the nonhuman things such as roads, fiberoptic cables, satellites, buildings, and all the rest necessary for social relations to exist at all. In Theory of Society, Luhmann makes progress over his earlier work Social Systems in that he begins to recognize that mediums of communication such as writing make a decisive difference in the form communication takes for a society and that technologies such as the internet fundamentally transform social relations, yet he fails to recognize that recognition of these elements, so similar to thinkers like Latour and McLuhan, would require a complete transformation of his concept of society. The point here is that the bracketing of materiality and nature that takes place in our social theory broadly construed distorts our understanding of society. Can we really understand why Christianity underwent such a profound transformation with the Reformation without attending to the role the bubonic plague played in social relations as an actor and how the bubonic plague was “semiotized”– or, to use Marx’s term in Capital, “metabolized” –by the signifying system of the time? Or, following Timothy LeCain, can we really understand the “culture” of the American West without taking into account soil conditions of Montana, the grasses of the region, and the behavior and needs of cattle? Were not the rhythms of the cattle a part of how the cowboys organized their social relations and how they lived their lives? The cattleman had to wake up early to milk the cows and attend to how they wandered about the land. All of this would contribute to how they lived their lives and related to other people. All of this disappears, becomes veiled, or becomes invisible when we restrict society to communication, language, people, or signs treating everything else as outside society.

Levi R. Bryant (2018). “Wilderness Heritage: For an Ontology of the Anthropocene.”

In Bryant’s example, the bubonic plague and soil are actants.

If we acknowledge, for the sake of argument, that Luhmann said nothing about fiber optic cables, smart phones, the plague, etc., we can extend social systems theory by taking matter more seriously. We can study things such as railroads, telegraph wires, copper, iPhones, and so on, as we look at the modernization of society. However, I don’t believe this requires “a complete transformation” of social systems theory as developed by Luhmann in the late 20th century. I see it, rather, as an extension of Luhmann’s work.

There is clearly a material substratum for all social communication–a normally functioning brain. In the absence of a brain and adequate cerebral blood flow, there is no communication. But the brain and its blood, according to Luhmann, are operationally excluded from communication. As I wrote in an early blog post, communication depends on functioning brains, yet when we talk to each other we don’t exchange brains, and pages of written text are not covered in cerebral blood. Adequate cerebral blood flow is a precondition for an author to sit upright at a desk and write something; however, as Luhmann nicely puts it, “An editor would reject an essay that came in a flood of blood” (Introduction to Systems Theory, 191). This means that a functioning brain is a necessary precondition for communication, but at the same time the brain and its blood are absolutely excluded from communication. To put this another way, as soon as an utterance (spoken or written) has been made and understood by someone, even if “misunderstood,” the speaker has completely lost control over the information. It’s fruitless to say, like Prufrock, “That is not what I meant at all.” The utterance enters into the communication system and is only answerable to further communication. That is to say, sentences spoken or written can remain in a communication system long after the  speaker or writer dies or leaves the scene, as long as they are repeated or recur in further utterances–that is, as long as they are reproduced.

Communication produces more communication, not matter. Matter, such as brains, paper and ink, copper, and fiber optic cables, can facilitate or make communication possible; however, nothing material is produced. We can communicate as long as we want, but no new iron ore will come into existence.

Social structures do change due to the availability of new materials, and social structures, in social systems theory, are expectations. Buildings, railroads, computers, airplanes, etc., are not treated as social structures. For example, thanks to the telegraph, people in the 19th century changed their expectations regarding the pace of communication. And thanks to the railroad, people changed their expectations regarding how fast and how far they could travel.

As Luhmann wrote, the printing press had a profound effect on society. He called the writing and print dissemination media (or dissemination technologies), not be confused with success media. Communication–understood as the synthesis of information, utterance, and understanding–is an event; it is “the elementary operation of society,” and it has no temporal duration. But writing distributes information in time and place. This distribution creates social redundancy.

Societal communication produces various media/forms depending on what problem is to be solved. I speak of dissemination media [Verbreitungsmedien] with reference to the scope of social redundancy. Dissemination media determine and extend the circle of those receiving information. To the extent that the same information is disseminated, information is transformed into redundancy. Redundancy makes information superfluous. It can be used to confirm social belongingness: people relate what is already known to show their solidarity. But this does not involve any gain in information. We can ask anyone who has received the information. If we ask repeatedly, no new information arises.

Dissemination can take place in face-to-face interaction. Writing increased the circle of recipients in an initially still controllable manner. But with the spread of literacy, it was soon impossible to know who had read what and remembered what texts contained. The invention of the printing press and then the advent of modern mass media compounded the anonymization of social redundancy.

Theory of Society, vol. 1, pp. 120-121

Elsewhere Luhmann writes,

That the elementary operation of society is an event bound to a point
in time that disappears as it occurs is an insight that takes us further. This is true of all components of communication: information, which can surprise only once; utterance, an act tied to a point in time; and understanding, which also cannot be repeated but at best recalled. And it is true of both oral and written communication, with the difference that the dissemination technology of writing can distribute the communication event in time and space to many addressees and can thus be realized at unpredictably many points in time.

With this time-point related concept of communication, we also correct a popular conception of information. Information is a surprising selection from among several possibilities. As a surprise, it can be neither enduring nor able to be transported; and it has to be produced within the system, since it presupposes comparison with expectations.

vol. 1., 36.

Communication requires a medial substratum and a form. For example, the medial substratum of writing is the alphabet (or characters) of a language. These elements can be combined endlessly into words without depleting the alphabet. For spoken language, the medial substratum consists of the phonemes of a particular language; the form, in contrast, is the spoken language, which disappears immediately unless recorded in some medium. As Luhmann put it,

forms are less permanent that the medial substratum. They endure only through special arrangements such as memory, writing, and printing.

p. 119

write something . . .

With the written word, telecommunication begins, the communicative accessibility of those present in space and time. Now the distinction between words and things was given an additional dimension. Telecommunication made it possible to transport signs instead of things.

p. 154

In other words, the invention of telegraphy meant that paper no longer had to be transported.


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