Embodiment and materiality

In reading the secondary literature on social systems theory, I sometimes come across the claim that for Luhmann psychic system means the mind and that, furthermore, this mind is incorporeal. The writer then claims that Luhmann fell back on the old body/mind duality, according to which there is a mind distinct from the physical body. Here is one quote, which I won’t cite because there’s no need to criticize particular people,

[Luhmann] implicitly conflates the concept of the ‘psychic’ system with the idea of incorporeality, presumably because of the non-material commonality between psyche and mind.

But these claims are simply false. The psychic system can be called the body’s awareness of itself. The psychic system consists of whatever the body can perceive via its five senses and its sixth sense, proprioception (perception or awareness of the position and movement of the body) or seventh sense (the vestibular sense). Actually, there is no clear number of senses. Pre-moderns listed several senses, including “internal senses” like hunger, memory, imagination, will, reason, and others. Some senses might even be unconscious–e.g., the “gut senses” that regulate digestion. The endocrine system might also be considered a sensory system. But however we define the senses, all sentient beings, not just humans, have senses. A better term than psychic system might be sensorium–the sensory apparatus or faculties considered as a whole.

The sensorium also thinks; that is, as we learn our native language we also internalize that language and use it to think. This might be considered a re-entry of language into the sensorium.

Another error I often see is that for Luhmann the psychic system equals the human being. Here’s an example:

A clear indication of such marginalisation of human embodiment in autopoiesis is the name that Luhmann reserves for humans: ‘psychic systems’.

But the human being is, first of all, a topic of communication or a semantic construct, but we can also think of the human body as the node where biological, psychic, and social systems come together. Luhmann refers to the human body as “a highly complex agglomeration of systems” (1996, 251). 

But the human body can also be observed as an assemblage. Judith Butler, echoing post-humanist thinkers, argues that the human body is not just the body bounded by skin. Butler goes on to argue that 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.

But the body and the walkable surface are only loosely coupled; it’s a transient structural coupling, as when a person wears glasses or uses a cane to walk. The glasses and cane, along with hearing aids, and even shoes and clothing are included in the material assemblage. A person driving, a car, riding a bike, or riding on a train or airplane is also a material assemblage. If these couplings were not transient, one’s glasses would be fixed on one’s face, shoes would be stuck on our feet, etc.


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