“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses a moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” —Graham Greene, The End of the Affair
Social Systems Theory began in 2016 as a blog devoted exclusively to the ideas of Niklas Luhmann (1927-98), Professor of Sociology at Bielefeld University in Germany. I wanted a narrow focus so that I could go deeply into one thing rather than scratching the surface of many topics. The site has gradually expanded, however, to cover other social theorists and well as to apply social theory to world literature and other topics. The name of the site has also changed a few times. Yet the majority of the posts still focus on Luhmannian theory. I have recently added a few static pages in order to change the site from just a blog into a more comprehensive Web site.
In the Forward to the English translation of Luhmann’s Social Systems (1995), Eva M. Knodt writes,
It goes without saying that once social theory has passed the “threshold of complexity,” it defies the linearity of the printed medium. Since there is no first principle or “natural” starting point for such a theory, any particular arrangement in chapters rests on a contingent choice, and it is possible to rewrite the theory in many different ways. Luhmann explicitly invites the reader to experiment with his theory and presents it in such a way as to facilitate recombination by constructing his text in small, relatively discrete units, which progressively open up and explore, with further and further amplification, a given question. (xix)
This is what I have been doing for last few years with this site. You can start with any blog post and follow the links or just read in a random sequence–there are currently over 300 posts. I invite you to start by clicking on a random link on this page, and then click on a link within the next page and see where it takes you. The hypertext medium is perfectly suited for this kind or reading and writing. In reading Social Systems, Knodt continues,
Thus it is possible, for example, to start with the concluding chapter on epistemology and work back to the beginning, a strategy Luhmann adopts in many of his more recent publications. (xix)
In this sense, Luhmann writes like Joyce in Finnegans Wake, a novel that could be read forever because the end circles back to the beginning. Much like Finnegans Wake, one could start reading Luhmann’s work anywhere. (It might be less frustrating, however, to begin with Luhmann’s Introduction to Systems Theory).
As noted above, an important feature of this blog is its hypertextual, or rhizomatic if you prefer, structure. Key concepts in social systems theory are hyperlinked, sort of like in Wikipedia, which means that the blog posts can be read in any order based on associational linkages. Most of the links, as in Wikipedia, keep the reader inside the site, but a few go out to the Web. You may also navigate by categories. I frequently revise and update posts as my thinking evolves. I go round and round, reading posts and making revisions. I don’t write in a linear way. I have plenty of time to write and rewrite. As Prufrock said,
And indeed there will be timeT. S. Eliot. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window-panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.
As mentioned above, Luhmann is known to have written in a kind of hypertextual (he kept a card catalogue with thoughts, quotes, etc., that he could mine when writing a book or article) rather than conventionally linear, manner. This style has always appealed to me. I wrote my doctoral dissertation (see the Publications page) on literary hypertext back when the Internet was still pretty new, and I have probably always thought in a nonlinear, hypertextual way.
The site is maintained by Carlton Clark. I am also an administrator of a Facebook group called Niklas Luhmann Group. Anyone interested in Luhmann’s work is welcome to join.
You are invited to post comments, as well as to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am always happy to discuss systems theory or anything else I write about here. Here is a link to my ResearchGate profile: Carlton Clark on ResearchGate