March 16th, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Niklas Luhmann: Unit Operations and Systems Theory

"Reality is what one does not perceive when one perceives it."
     - Niklas Luhmann

Niklas Luhmann in a little critique of the latter work of Maturana on autopoiesis and its notion that circularity is an objective fact, argues that Maturana leaves out the problem of self-referentiality altogether. Luhmann also tells us that we must be wary of using such analogies borrowed from biological sciences and casting them across other disciplines such as sociology or psychology. For Luhmann what is important in any system are "general patterns which can just be described as making a distinction and crossing the boundary of the distinction [which] enables us to ask questions about society as a self-observing system[s]". [1]

This reflexive interference or distinction made by any system goes beyond just human consciousness or even some notion of a transcendental subject, yet as he emphasizes there are systems that use recursive practices that make distinctions using memory functions to guide its self-reflexive modality. For him there are also "formal similarities between psychic systems and social systems, and this is for me important in trying to write a theory, a social theory, of self-describing systems, in particular of society" (TDO, 13) 

As Luhmann puts it in the Kantian mode humans never see reality as it is in-itself, we always distort it through the lens of perception. Luhmann puts all this into perspective telling us that it can be rephrased. One possible path to take is the analytical path of seeing this as a problem of language, of oppositional thinking within the binary structure of linguistic terms themselves. As he states it you could formulate the problems saying that "reality emerges if you have inconsistency in your operations; language opposes language, somebody says "yes," another says "no," or I think something which is uncomfortable given my memory, and then you have to find the pattern of resolution." This would be the path of an Analytical philosopher in the sense as that as he says reality "is then the acceptance of solutions for inconsistency problems..." (TDO, 14).

Later on in the interview he tells us that "we need an evolutionary explanation of how systems survive to the extent that they can learn to handle the inside/outside difference within the system, within the context of their own operation. They can never operate outside of the system."  Luhmann is trying to infuse theory with a sense of temporality, of time as the distinction in the self-reflexive movement of any system: "I would rather think that a system is always, in its operation, beyond any possible cognition, and it has to follow up its own activity, to look at it in retrospect, to make sense out of what has already happened, to make sense out of what was already produced as a difference between system and environment" (TOD, 22).  He goes on to say,

"So first the system produces a difference of system and environment, and then it learns to control its own body and not the environment to make a difference in the system. So cognition then becomes a secondary achievement in a sense, tied to a specific operation which, I think, is that of making a distinction and indicating one side and not the other. It's an explosion of possibilities, if you always have the whole world present in your distinctions."

In another essay Luhmann shows us that the concept of autopoiesis is a grand tautology (i.e., the unity of the system is produced by the system itself), but the methodological task that needs to be done is to deconstruct this tautology. He goes on to tell us that such a methodology must do this "empirically identifying the operations which produce and reproduce the unity of the system." [2] To get there he asks us if the older classical issues surrounding the problem of reference (as a condition of meaning and truth) is itself a meaningful question in regards to the distinctions we make about subject and object, observer/observed, inside/outside, etc... Instead he tells us that we need to transform that question into how we distinguish between "self-reference and external reference". 

In his communications theory he states flatly that as a system it depends upon "introducing the difference between system and environment into the system" as the internal split within the system itself that allows it to make the distinction to begin its operative procedures to begin with (OC, 1420). He defines communication as "a kind of autopoetic network of operations which continually organizes what we seek, the coincidence of self-reference (utterance) and external reference (information)" (OC, 1424). He details this out saying,

"Communication comes about by splitting reality through a highly artificial distinction between utterance and information, both taken as contingent events within an ongoing process that recursively uses the results of previous steps and anticipates further ones" (OC, 1424).

This distinction between utterance/information or self-reference/external reference is central to this dualistic process that is both contingent and open to a temporal forms of difference. The most difficult question he tells us is "how to define the operation that differentiates the system and organizes the difference between system and environment while maintaining reciprocity between dependence and independence" (OC, 1426). 
Autopoietic systems unlike the input/output models of open systems rely on the concept of structural coupling: it renounces the idea of an overarching causality, but retains the idea of highly selective connections between systems and environments (OC, 1432). Structural coupling is the concept he uses to define and organize the difference between system and environment while maintaining reciprocity between dependence and independence.  In some ways autopoiesis is the way things are, their mode of being in the world, and the way they overcome entropy. It is the self-perpetuating system that performs operational closure continuously, selecting, condensing, confirming, changing, or forgetting structures that help it continue its on autopoiesis. As he states it this will not prevent its ultimate destruction, but if "a system can organize structural changes, it can increase its adaptive capacity, but also its maladaption" (OC, 1440). In a final quip he tells us that autopoietic systems are "systems organizing dynamic stability" (OC, 1441).

I will need to read more of Luhmann in the future, yet I do see some interesting features that could be used to move beyond his epistemological mixture of empirical and naturalist leanings and toward an Object-Oriented mode of thought. Even my own personal involvement in those vast Service-Oriented Architectures of network systems I deal with on a daily basis use these concepts of structural coupling/decoupling of objects (autopoietic systems). One must be careful to cross the boundary between one's involvement with Object-Oriented Programming and Object-Oriented Philosophy, yet there are certain ties that resonate - at least for me, on a personal level.  His idea of communication as "a kind of autopoetic network of operations which continually organizes what we seek, the coincidence of self-reference (utterance) and external reference (information)" (OC, 1424) is empowering. The sorts of operations that are performed daily in enterprise systems among disparate and often conflictual systems that speak procedural languages of differing types and kinds plays into this for me. I think of one example as the Enterprise Service Bus (ESB), a sort of mediator object among disparate systems that allows these systems to communicate with each other indirectly through a mediator object (i.e., a vicar). Within the ESB the translation and transformation of differing operations, languages, and objects takes place according to rules that are guided by the relations among the disparate systems themselves. It's a sort of black box within which operations can be performed that allow systems that otherwise would never come into contact to make contact with each other without the need of direct communication. I'll not go into the intricacies of enterprise development but only use this as an example to show how systems are always negotiating boundaries between the utterance/information in an autopoietic or object based system. Yet, one does not want to equalize these two approaches as if they were the same. They are not. I do see some conflicts, yet also some strange resemblances in the two theories; yet, I need a better understanding of Luhmann's ideas and his empirical and epistemological position before making any final judgements.

I think Graham Harman's Prince of Networks and Ian Bogost's work on Unit Operations extends much of this in a profound way by developing an Object-Oriented mode that allows for reference and withdrawel, or structural coupling/decoupling in Luhmann's terms. Levi R. Bryant is working with much of this territory as well, and I'm sure Democracy of Objects should open up some interesting territory on this line of thought. Fascinating stuff that I'll need to work through in a more lucid fashion to see how all the terminological and philosophical implications play out.


1. Theory of a Different Order: A Conversation with Katherine Hayles and Niklas Luhmann (TDO) Author(s): Katherine Hayles, Niklas Luhmann, William Rasch, Eva Knodt, Cary Wolfe Source: Cultural Critique, No. 31, The Politics of Systems and Environments, Part II (Autumn, 1995), pp. 7-36 Published by: University of Minnesota Press
2. Operational Closure and Structural Coupling: The Differentiation of the Legal System, by Niklas Luhmann (OC) (Cardoza Law Review Vol. 13:1419 1991 -1192)