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From Metanarrative to Supertheory. Glossary of Key Terms. Translations of Key Luhmann Texts. Works by Luhmann in English. Works on Luhmann in English. An Annotated List of German Manuals. What Is Social Systems Theory? What Is Real? Their economic transaction continues while they are simultaneously a lover to the person on the end of one phone and perhaps a parent on the end of the other.

Does it really make sense to talk about these two people as being indivisible?

Introduction To Systems Theory

Are they two people or four? There was a time when people could be defined more or less once and for all time — in the pre-modern age people were allocated a position in society prior to their birth and there was no escaping that role except by death.

A peasant was a peasant and a lord, a lord. That world no longer exists. In a functionally differentiated world, you get to be what you do — but no one really gets to do only one thing, everyone has multiple functions to perform and so have multiple identities. The essential part of a cell is the cell wall. It is this that divides what is cell from what is not cell and therefore allows the cell to be something. For Luhmann society is made up of functional units that are much the same.

So that there is a legal function within society and this is different from the economic function or the political ones. We know this because there are many ways societies can organise their legal and political structures, but once an organising principle has been applied, once a structure has been built upon those foundations, they are no longer arbitrary but, to all intents and purposes, necessary. What is particularly interesting here is that each of these functional systems, each of these necessary components of a fully working social order, are based on communication.

The example given is economics — where an economic exchange means entering into a communicative relationship with someone else and playing by the rules of the economic functional system. If I do not recognise the use of money — a key component in the communication system of economics — I am hardly likely to exchange my goods for your grotty little bits of paper.

The mass media is something we immediately associate with communication — so we are not likely to react negatively when someone tells us that its central purpose is communicative in the way we might for say dentistry. But it is important to remember that Luhmann is only seeing the media as a hyper-example of the fundamental role of all functional roles in society. He discusses the Green movement — a movement dedicated to conservation of the environment. However, Luhmann did not believe that to be the case. The Green movement became a political movement and as such its real point was to create politicians, which it did with abandon.

Our functionally differentiated society reproduces itself, his term for this is that it is an autopoietic system.

For Luhmann it is almost impossible to truly act outside of the functional units a society creates. It is the existing order. None of the existing functional units would be overthrown if gay marriage rights were granted. Now, onto the media. To play the game you need to know a series of background facts about how your society exists. These facts are the common knowledge of anyone actively engaged in that society. The media provides a similar function because it delineates what is worth knowing from what is not.

Chomsky proposes that since the media are increasingly held in the hands of fewer and fewer media interests — huge corporations — it is inevitable that they will present a picture of the world that is in the interests of those corporations. Bill is employed because he can be assured to say and think the right things. To Luhmann this idea is based on a false premise, that there is an underlying truth that is both simple and can be uncovered if the manipulation is removed.

This book refers to the Communist Manifesto here — which had me going to check and it seems he is probably right. In a sense this is the role of any manifesto that must at some level believe in the power of words to affect change. The media has both more and less power than they assert in their beliefs. One of the things the media does — perhaps its most important role — is to create the illusion of personal agency. We believe things like President Bush launched the Gulf War, but if push came to shove we would probably have to concede that it took one or two more people than just this one guy to do such a thing.

Thereby the individual is external to all function systems. The individual has now left society but it can partially re-enter, namely with particular roles. This is problematic, because 1. This programme of individuality may lead to a multiple self or an imitational person. The concept of a career is wide all function systems and deep an unsuccessful career counts also. But although careers can be based on psychic characteristics, they are social and not psychic: they connect people to society, but they do not necessarily connect people to themselves; that is a job for subjectivity, namely how people select their partial identities from what is available.

In a society based on functional differentiation, social developments cannot be imposed by one system on another. Society as a whole cannot be directed. DPB: and the same holds true for the economy and for organizations, see ch 1 above. Concerning the Green movement in Germany, in summary: proposed changes in function systems result in changes in the function systems themselves and not necessarily in the ecology.

Movements frequently use a type of communication called moral discourse; this usually indicates the existence of a conflict; under normal circumstances function systems do not require this mode. Luhmann sees this as an ethical task, ethics being treated as the reflection on morality: his ethics aim at explaining morality from the nonmoral perspective of society hence the negative ethics in the title. But it is possible to provide a theory that describes how a morality works within a functionally differentiated society.

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Systems theory can say: there can be no ethical propositions, positive ethics cannot be expressed, what is good shows itself as good in practice, and there is no correspondence between good theory and good practice. The exercise to identify a positive ethics in the sense of a rational and universal morality has turned out futile. Society cannot be steered by people, moral discourse does not change it; society changes itself autopoietically. Social systems theory is itself a social system within the science function system and so it itself can only change itself autopoietically.

Anyhow there can unsurprisingly not be direct influence on society. And equally impossible is it to steer in a direct sense the behavior of an organization such as a firm.

This expectation has to be modest: the best it can do is to stir the minds of scientists or other readers , who then in turn stir the minds or irritate as Luhmann formulates it of the people that carry the meme or are, as per Luhmann, included in the communication of the other function systems and of subsystems such as organizations including firms.

This expression is modest and it shows that other attempts are prone to pompousness; Luhmann hopes for more, namely that the discomfort the theory produces will have disruptive effects. Humanist semantics still shows a blind faith in our nonhumanist society. DPB: but imagine what a load of spare time virtually everyone would have if these half-baked attempts at improving society were abandoned.


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If society is indeed structured in function systems then people cannot rule and cannot be free, and hence democracy and liberation are meaningless concepts. And its effects will be discomforting if it is able to irritate society so much that these semantics lose their credibility. Some systems can gain ground in some state of them and of the other function systems while others may lose relevance to even fade away completely; the present state of the mass media is of the category rising star.

It emerged with the emergence of speech, writing, printing press and its distribution accelerated with the emergence of radio, TV, and internet. DPB: this means that sense is being made of patterns perceived by the communication systems, but there is no meaning in the sense that is made. But to make sense is a double concept it makes sense to me : the thing observed makes no sense or I am not able to make sense of that thing I am observing. The relevance of the concept for my research is in the way that the function systems are spread over the population to include human beings in their ranks.

The Democracy of Objects

Because only with the messages of the evangelies of the capitalist system the belief in the idea of progress can individuals be included in the ranks and hence be motivated to behave such that this kind of economy appears with this kind of firms as a part of it. DPB: this definition to an increasing extent includes corporations, because newspapers and websites use their disseminations via press releases often without further research or critical questions; this makes the firm effectively inclusive to member of the function system of the mass media.

An essential element, however, is a lack of interaction among those co-present can take place between the sender and the receivers; interaction cannot take place because of the interposition of technology. DPB: this reminds me of the concept of coevalness, whereby human beings are denied a common experience, and hence a distance exists between the observer and the observed that itself becomes a difference and is treated as a difference of their time-lines.

I have assumed that there is no fundamental difference: they are all signals entering or not the mind of the person to there be assigned a meaning or not through associations with other ideas. DPB: but I would argue that they could accelerate revolutions in other function systems: revolutions can only be brought about by the function systems themselves, but irritations can occur at a larger scale and more frequently.

Mass media make communication global. Mass media observes its intrasocial environment and constructs information by selecting and producing it. The information is public to all, it is general even if it is restricted for some, it is fully open to those for whom it is not rated movies. Mass media in this sense constitutes what we know about the world in which we live, and specifically our society.

If information is used as a code, this means that the operations in the system are constantly and inevitably transforming information to non-information. And as a consequence this transition puts time pressure on the system. DPB: the surprise is taken out, the randomness reduced, the order increased, organization irreversibly increased, time flows in the direction of the increase of irreversibility.

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Once the information is divulged by the mass media, everyone will irreversibly know about it, and as a consequence time in practical terms flows in the direction of the release of new information. This mode of operation is specific for mass media as a function system: no other is known to transitions its one side to its other irreversibly apart from some cases in the economic realm maybe: once paid, something immediately becomes unpaid for the next owner. The issue is maybe not that the system experiences pressure of time, but that time is created there; in terms of counting of events: the events in the mass media are many and of a high frequency compared to other function systems and as a consequence from those other systems time may seem to pass fast in the world.

In special cases, such as advertising, repetition is in order, because it just shows how important this product is to show people it time and again. This appears to be a also the description of the role of the mass media in general as a function system: to in fact supply society with norms and choices. They generate a constantly renewed willingness to be prepared for surprises, disruptions even. The mass media system accelerates the speed of society by continuously providing new irritations.

The Democracy of Objects

The systems provides two timelines: one in the future where new information is uncovered and another in the past where obsoleteness is produced. DPB: I am not sure that these are two timelines, perhaps it functions like a kind of a metabolism, first selecting and producing new information and then digesting it chewing it up to give it over to obsoleteness. DPB: this is exactly how I have modeled it in the Logistical model: in situation bad name?