Notes on an article by Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen and Paul Stenner

Notes on a new article by Niels Åkerstrøm Andersen and Paul Stenner. In first the section of the article, Åkerstrøm and Stenner discuss social immune mechanisms. They provide a very helpful theoretical overview before making their own argument about potentialization technologies. Here are some notes and quotes from the article.

Systems learn to expect the unexpected. I’ve discussed this concept in terms of codes and programs. Andersen and Stenner write,

In diverging from the classical biological view of the immune system as the part of the organism that defends it against external attacks, Luhmann closely follows developments within biology itself. He orients towards a systems theoretical form of biology that arguably escapes the oft-criticised biological reductionism – of which Durkheim and Parsons stand accused – that would model sociology so problematically upon biology. A turning point was the work conducted in the mid-1970s by the Danish immunologist Niels Jerne who demonstrated how the body’s production of antibodies was organised into networks. Francisco Varela reconstrued these networks as autopoietic systems. From this perspective, what constitutes an immune system is not the mere collection of antibodies and other agents, but their recruitment and linkage into a self-generating, self-referential and self-learning network (Varela et al, 1993). Varela, for example, describes a movement from an antigen-centred to an organism-centred immunology (Varela 1979: 216). Varela (1995: 213) argues that: ‘Classic immunology understands immunology in military terms as a defence system against invaders. […] If this made sense, the system would shrink to nothing if there are no invaders. Yet when mice are raised in milieus free from external challenge, their immune systems are normal!’

For Varela the immune system functions as much by creating tolerance to antigens as by destroying them (see also Haraway, 1989 and Esposito, 2011: 8), and it does so as a self-generating network capable of ‘observing’ and differentially reacting to events. We might say that its familiar ‘classical’ function of hostility (reactive destruction of antigens) has been supplemented within systems theory by a more primordial function of hospitality (flexible incorporation of antigens).

p. 9-10

Luhmann is often dismissed as a political conservative. I’m not interested in his politics, but as a social theorist he was a radical.

In contrast to sociologists who advance a critical ‘no’ to society, Luhmann appears to bolster a political liberalism, and to prefer a ‘yes’. Indeed, his account of an immune system through which society can respond to its own alarms is itself motivated by a concern to ask how a ‘necessary “yes” to society can be regained’ (Luhmann, 1995: 404). Luhmann aims to short-circuit the familiar contrast between a normatively conservative legal system, and critical activism aiming for unrest and supporting social movements against ‘society’ (403). Luhmann reformulates this oppositional contrast between ‘the politico-economic complex of modern capitalism’ and ‘the totality of the social movements stimulated by it’ as precisely a distinction between societal structures and society’s immune system (404). From this perspective, law and social movements both show up as immune systems. They share the common feature of using contradictions to open social structure to a controlled form of instability, and hence to the possibility of structural change permitting new internal complexity. In Luhmann’s account, the immune system is destabilising of structure as much as it is conservative, and he insists that one ‘must guard against the widespread error of thinking that destabilization as such is dysfunctional’ (367). On the contrary, for Luhmann (404) modern society, ‘in contrast with all historical predecessors, has destabilized its structures and considerably enhanced its potential for saying no’.

p. 4

Here is a good explanation of the the distinction between structure and function:

A social system, in Luhmann’s terms, endures to the extent that it is
an internally coherent stream of communicative events, each conditioning the next and forming a connected series which, taken in its temporal togetherness, acquires an autonomy beyond any individual person. If such a system is self-reproducing or, to use the biological jargon ‘autopoietic’, this is because, ultimately, the events are the self-creating realities that, in concert, and via the vivid immediacy of their arising and perishing, reproduce the structures they require. The concept of function undergoes a comparable reformulation. A function is no longer the job proper to a pregiven structure but rather a focus from which a range of potential solutions to a marked problem can be compared (Luhmann, 2000: 138).

p. 8

We are used to thinking of function as the proper job of a structure–e.g., the function of a bridge is to allow people to cross a river. Also, we might confuse structure with system, as is talking about the function of the auditory system, etc. But in systems theory, function means “a focus from which a range of potential solutions to a marked problem can be compared.”

An autopoietic system has no direct contact with its environment, but ‘constructs’ it only by way of its ongoing and recursive reactions and activities. It is in this sense of being directed ‘inwards’ that all immune reactions are also ‘autoimmune’ . . .

pp. 11-12

We can also speak of this as self-irritation. Systems compare new events with existing structures, and the autoimmune response happens when the new event interferes with or contradicts existing structures.

Varela neatly expresses this changed view of the relationship between the immune system, the environment and the organism when he insists that the organism does not directly ‘perceive’ the ‘foreign material’ but rather detects interference within the ongoing reactions of its own network of operations.

p. 11

When we talk about an autopoietic system being in danger of de- differentiation, we are using the military metaphor. The idea is that the system must “battle against” de-differentiation. But the modern view of immunity is inconsistent with this metaphor.

Here’s an interesting fact:

Luhmann’s description of societal immune mechanisms is not metaphorical. Indeed, the word ‘immunity’ was social before becoming biological. ‘Immunis’ meant ‘not paying a share’ and was used in Ancient Latin to indicate situations of exemption from taxes or other liabilities.

pp. 11-12

This suggests that biology borrowed the term, at least indirectly, from Roman law.

[The] logic of immunity is anti-structural.

p. 12

Immunity does not protect system structures; rather, the structures serve the system’s autopoiesis. The idea of protecting a structure or organism is consistent with the old concept of immunity–the idea that a system builds up an immunity to defend itself against a hostile environment. Autopoiesis is the self-reproduction of system events. And events must be continually reproduced because they have no temporal duration; they pass away in the same instant that they appear. One event must connect to previous and subsequent events.

One of the problems with potentialization is that it excludes the present and the past. What people did in the past or what they are doing now is implicitly devalued; it’s something that we have to get past.

As for the rest of the article . . .

In sum, when potentialisation says ‘no’ to structures in general, looking for attempts at the radically different, it does not distinguish between structures that are worth preserving, and structures that are not. . . . [In] the ‘from reality to the ideal’ game, the value of contemporary experience is excluded. . . . When potentialisation technologies double the world, they enjoin their participants to stay on the virtual, ‘playful’ side of the difference. Pushing the ‘real world’ aside, potentialisation puts everyday knowledge and work experience in jeopardy, risking the devaluation of professional knowledge and experience. The principle autoimmune danger of potentialisation is thus the paradox of permanent liminality: the possibility of becoming stuck within possibility.

p. 28

So one’s current professional knowledge is dismissed or ignored. In practice, therefore, the potentialization games discussed in the article often turn professionals in children. We go to endless training sessions where we are told to “think the unthinkable,” “think outside the box,” etc. “Continuous quality improvement” is the catchphrase. Furthermore statements like “think outside the box” are performative paradoxes. We are told to think outside the box, and if we follow this instruction we are not thinking outside any box.

Stenner and Andersen argue that potentialization technologies do not distinguish between useful structures and structures that are impeding progress. All current structures are bracketed.


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