March 15th, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Levi R. Bryant: On Luhmann; or the Distinction Between Utterance and Information

"A central axiom of Luhmann’s thought is that information repeated twice is no longer information. Systems require the production of information so that they might engage in further operations (the production of communication events) that allow them to exist from moment to moment, thereby reproducing themselves."
     - Levi R. Bryant,
Luhmann's Antagonistic Commons

Levi makes an interesting observation in his notes on Luhmann's Antagonistic Commons in reference to mass media production as a vehicle for producing difference through oppositional modes of communication. His main thrust is that our "weird sort of Common" ("The commons," for Hardt and Negri "is the incarnation, the production, and the liberation of the multitude" (Empire 303, my emphasis)) is an "antagonistic unity where this world is able to reproduce itself as a unity not through the production of consensus, but through a production of antagonism or difference."

Niklaus Luhmann in The Reality of Mass Media comes to a point where he wonders how communication must be, in "order that it can not only reproduce itself but also take on cognitive functions and separate reproductive or informational components" (96). [1]  He then goes on to qualify this - and, I quote at length:

"The answer is that communication only comes about at all by being able to distinguish utterance and information in its self-observation (in understanding). Without this distinction, communication would collapse, and participants would have to rely on perceiving something which they would only be able to describe as behavior. The difference of utterance and information corresponds precisely with the requirement of not making the progress of communication to communication dependent upon information being complete and relevant. And only because this primary, constitutive difference exists can communication code itself in a binary form ... and in this way feel its way around the environment with a distinction for which there is no correlate whatever in the environment itself. Without this distinction, which has been entered into its own operation, the system would not be capable of constituting any recognizable identities or developing any memory. Nor could it evolve, or build up its own complexity, or test the possibilities for structuration positively/negatively and thus meet the minimum condition for the continuation of its own autopoiesis. Society as we know it would be impossible" (96-97).

What seems significant in the above remarks is that a system constitutes its difference through inserting a distinction within its own operation between utterance and information, and it is out of this distinction that a system constitutes its self-production and reproduction. It is not the reproduction of information itself that produces difference, it is the distinction made between the utterance and information in the very production process itself that produces difference and makes the continuance of the autopoietic system possible.  As Luhmann said in the passage above, without "this distinction, which has been entered into its own operation, the system would not be capable of constituting any recognizable identities or developing any memory." It is the fine line or distinction between utterance and information that is the differance that makes a differance.


1. Niklaus Luhman, The Reality of Mass Media (1996 Westdeutscher Verlag/ Polity Press 2000 )