In press | Management and functional differentiation

Source: In press | Management and functional differentiation

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More thoughts on complexity

I found this comment posted on the Niklas Luhmann Group to be very helpful:

A system can only be less complex than the environment otherwise it couldn’t make a difference between itself and the environment. But by reducing complexity the system can also increase complexity (like the alphabet reduces our vocal complexity to some letters but it offers also nearly unlimited options to combine those letters to build new words)–Bjarne Schreiber

One of the frustrations of reading Luhmann is the paucity of these kinds of examples.  I’ve seen a great deal discussion of the principle that systems increase their own complexity by reducing environmental complexity, but it’s not easy to find good examples.

The complexity issue is about media and form. The letters in the alphabet are medial substratum and words are forms. Letters are used to create one word, then decomposed (unlinked, uncoupled) and reused in different sequences to create other words. The media must be reusable; letters can’t just be used to make one word and trapped there forever. In spoken language, we have phonemes, morphemes, lexemes, and other elements that are combined into meaningful language.

Morpheme: any of the minimal grammatical units of a language, each constituting a word or meaningful part of a word, that cannot be divided into smaller independent grammatical parts, as the, write, or the -ed of waited.

Phoneme: any of a small set of units, usually about 20 to 60 in number, and different for each language, considered to be the basic distinctive units of speech sound by which morphemes, words, and sentences are represented. They are arrived at for any given language by determining which differences in sound function to indicate a difference in meaning, so that in English the difference in sound and meaning between pit and bit is taken to indicate the existence of different labial phonemes, while the difference in sound between the unaspirated p of spun and the aspirated p of pun, since it is never the only distinguishing feature between two different words, is not taken as ground for setting up two different p phonemes in English.

Lexeme: a minimal meaningful unit of language, the meaning of which cannot be understood from the meaning of its component morphemes.Take off (in the senses to mimic, to become airborne, etc) is a lexeme, as well as the independent morphemes take and off.

Media are also called elements, and the possible combinations of elements (or horizon of possibilities) is described as complexity. Elements may combine for a moment, then break their bonds, and then combine with other elements. Also, elements must combine with the same kind of elements. A phoneme can only combine with another phoneme. A phoneme cannot combine with a morpheme or a cash payment or anything else to create anything meaningful.

In meaning-based systems (psychic and social systems) the element is a communication event. It consists of three selections–information, utterance, and understanding. Ego selects the information and utterance, and the alter selects the understanding. The synthesis of these three selections produces meaning; it is a non-decomposable unit of meaning, and it vanishes in the same moment that is emerges. As an element, it has no temporal duration. The meaning event (element) must be replaced by a subsequent meaning event in order for the system to reproduce itself.

For psychic systems, the element is a thought. Thought are only meaningful when there are preceding thoughts to link to and the expectation of subsequent thoughts. But the thought itself has no duration. It’s an event. Structure is the linking of the event to a before and after. The meaning event must refer to previous and expected meanings; this is self-referentiality. The systems refers to it’s own elements, and it makes new elements out of “old” elements. This also described in terms of redundancy. As King and Thornhill write,

The redundant aspect of communication becomes structure, providing the means for a communication to be recognized as belonging to the system. The event relies on this recognition for its inclusion as communication belonging to the system.

Temporality allows the formation of structure. The temporal dimension allows for before and after. A unit of meaning is only meaningful within this temporal dimension. The element only exists because there was a preceding meaning unit and there is an expectation of subsequent meaning units.

Expectation and memory are structures. Memory is not a storehouse of images or facts; it is a structure that allows meaning to happen–it is the before of the before/after distinction. The after is the expectation.

Structure is established through a re-entry into the system of of the system/environment distinction. That is to say, the distinction of before/after re-enters the system, which allows meaning to be assigned to either before or after–these are the only two options. Since a meaning unit, or elements of communication, vanishes in the same moment that it appears, the system can only observe before and after. As Luhmann writes,

[The] concept of of autopoietic closure makes it possible to understand the function of enforced binary choices. The system can continue its autopoiesis or it can stop it. It can can continue to live, to produce conscious states, to communicate with the alternative to come to an end. There are, with respect to autopoiesis, no third states. (Autopoiesis of Social Systems,” in Essays on Self-Reflection, p. 13)

For a system to increase its complexity it must specialize, or develop an inclusion/exclusion scheme. “The system invents a choice, which did not exist without it.”

For example, though the invention of property, the economic system created a forced choice between ownership and non-ownership. The economy is about having and not-having. There is no third option. Even if you are renting, you have the thing as long as you pay the rent. The having/not-having form can only be crossed by a payment, which is an event. This event, like a meaning unit, has no duration. The economy reproduces itself by linking one payment-event to another payment-event. A payment is the non-decomposable unit of the economic system. Is is also called the symbolically generalized communication medium of the economy.

The economy specializes in monetary payments. If the economy observes something as a monetary payment, the system includes it, or treats it as meaningful (the economy, being a social system, is meaning-based). For the economy, complexity is the linkage or payments in all sorts of ways. There are nearly unlimited possibilities for linking payment to payment. So by excluding everything else, such a morality, religion, politics, and love, the economy has been able to establish great complexity. The economy reduces the complexity of its environment by observing everything as either a payment or not-a-payment. If it’s not a payment, it must remain in the economy’s environment. It’s a strict either/or without a third possibility. This simplicity then allows the economy to create its own complexity. The advantage of money over a barter economy is that monetary payments may be very quickly circulated. The money can be immediately reused. But if you give me a chicken in payment for eight hours of work, I cannot easily trade that chicken for fuel to heat my house. The economy cannot make complex connections between bartered commodities. Another advantage is that monetary payments have no memory. This means that the economy doesn’t know how I obtain the money for my rent. Only the law takes notice of that. By excluding moral considerations, the economy enhances its efficient circulation of payments.

However, there are limits to a system’s complexity, as described in the complexity-sustainability trade-off.

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Interactional Codes

Luhmann discusses various kinds of social system–e.g., society, function systems, organizations, interactions, protest movements. I want to explore interaction systems.

There is a horizon of possibilities for interactional codes–the codes used in the fleeting conversations or communicative interactions that happen all the time. There is the code of polite conversation, which is pleasure/ennui. Polite conversation is observed as either pleasurable or boring, and boring conversations do not last long. It’s an either/or. The pleasure is what allows the interaction to reproduce itself in time. Conversations can go on for hours if they give pleasure.

A different code produces intimate relations. This is the code of disclosure/nondisclosure. In intimate relations the participants disclose information about themselves that they do not share with non-intimates. The disclosure has to be reciprocal because one person will stop disclosing information if the other person just listens without disclosing anything about themselves. This is about double contingency. One participant (ego) discloses because they expect the other person (alter) to disclose.

The complexity of possible interaction is reduced through these codes. The codes tell us what kind of interaction we are dealing with or what is expected. It would be inappropriate to disclose intimate personal information in polite conversation, and such an attempt would be met with negative feedback. While positive feedback signals that continued disclosure is expected or desired, negative feedback would signal that the disclosure should stop. The code, in other words, regulates the interaction–it sets a horizon for appropriate communications.

Another variety of interaction system could be called elevator conversation. There are strict, unwritten rules about how to conduct this kind of interaction. Business conversation (not to be confused with economic communication, which relies on the medium of money) would be another example.

Coding serves to overcome the improbability of communication, including interaction systems.

There are many programs within intimate relations; as programs, these are flexible and changeable, but the code disclosure/nondisclosure remains the same. A few programs are close friendship, love, marriage, and sexual relations. These all involve some kind of personal disclosure, but they don’t have to be combined. In contemporary western cultures, we can can have close friendship without love or sex, love without marriage, marriage without love, sex without marriage, marriage without sex, love without sex, etc. In past ages, sex without marriage was not an approved program, at least for women, which brings in the moral code of to be respected (esteemed) /not to be respected (esteemed) . As Dustin Kidd wrote, in a 1999 essay posted online:

In this century, the feminist movement and the sexual revolution changed everything. Neither the procreative nor the recreational aspects of sex need be confined to marriage. All programs for the codification of love have been rejected as patriarchal and archaic, and have yet to be replaced.

The association of intimate relations with morality seems to be a case of structural coupling or interpenetration. There may be a co-evolution between programs of the morality system and the intimate relations system. Moral communication is a social system, and it irritates and is irritated by other social systems.

Programs are associated with culture. Culture, in turn, according to Dirk Baecker, selects from a horizon of possibilities. Culture is a two-side form. See a previous blog post:

Baecker defines the notion of culture-form with regard to the fact that every medium of communication creates many more communicative possibilities than may be momentarily actualized. A culture-form does not restrict these possibilities but offers a general formula that allows one to deal with this overflow. . .  (Laermans)

We need to differentiate society and culture.

The concept of culture can be distinguished from the notion of society (Baecker 1997, 2000). Whereas the latter points to the actual continuation of social action, which often necessitates improvisation, the former refers to the distinction between correct and incorrect action. (Laermans)

Making intimate disclosures would be observed as incorrect in polite conversation, as well as in “elevator conversation” or business conversation. We learn these things as we are enculturated.

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The code of polite conversation

Sean Ward has a very interesting (and readable) article titled “Functional Differentiation and the Crisis in Early Modern upper-class Conversation: The Second Madame, Interaction, and Isolation.” (2006. Seventeenth-Century French Studies).

Ward discusses the breakdown of polite conversation in late 17th-early 18th century France. The decline of polite conversation among the French aristocracy happened as functional differentiation was displacing stratification. Citing Luhmann, Ward refers to the code of polite conversation as pleasure/ennui. Conversation for the sake of conversation was an activity reserved for the nobility, and the rule was to be agreeable and clever. Controversial topics were excluded.

Ward mentions an interesting conflict between religious communication and polite conversation, relating to the the efforts of 18th century missionaries to convert Native Americans to Christianity. The Native Americans treated the Gospel as everyday communication, which one was not expected to take too seriously, rather than a special kind of communication–the communication related to religious salvation.

The Native Americans do not question the Truths of the Gospel, which would be acceptable and even welcome, for saying no to Christianity today brings with it the possibility of saying yes tomorrow. Instead, they engage in mere civility which achieves nothing but the avoidance of disputes. The interactional impasse results, I believe, from the different way the two groups categorise the encounter. According the Europeans’ interpretation, the Native Americans do not acknowledge that the encounter belongs to a specific functional sphere (namely, religion).
Rather, they behave as if the encounter is simply polite conversation.

Some eighty years earlier, Madame too draws attention to the incompatibility of religious communication and polite conversation. In 1705 her half-sister Amelise writes that she receives great pleasure from listening to a sermon. Madame is incredulous: ‘To listen for an hour to a buffoon, whom one may not contradict, holding forth from his pulpit may be good, but it is not pleasant. Madame grudgingly concedes that it is appropriate to apply to a sermon the moral code good/evil but inappropriate to apply, as her half-sister does, the code pleasure/ennui, which is specific to polite conversation.

The code of moral communication is good/evil or, as Luhmann says, respect/disrespect. Moral communication communicates whether certain persons are to be respected or disrespected. This, of course, is incompatible with the pleasure/ennui code.

According to Ward, polite conversations declined among the nobility because of distrust, along with the fact that (due to democratization) the communications among the nobility became disconnected from real political power.

Due to functional differentiation, it is considered wrong to discuss business or politics at church or to discuss politics, religion, or intimate relations in casual, fleeting interactions–or with people one doesn’t really know or trust. It is safer to discuss the weather. Different kinds of communication are reserved for different social systems.

This post continues here.

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Notes on the complexity-sustainability trade-off

Notes on Vladislav Valentinov’s (2014) “The Complexity- Sustainability Trade- Off in Niklas Luhmann’s Social Systems Theory.”

According to Luhmann, the basic rationale for the existence of social systems is the reduction of complexity, which is understood as the infinite horizon of possibilities of action and experience (cf. Schneider, 2009, p. 251). This horizon is immensely complex. Human action implies an actualization of some of the possibilities out of
this horizon and is in this sense necessarily contingent. Luhmann rejects all forms of teleology that would deny this contingence (Krause, 2005, p. 8). As the horizon of possibilities is infinite, it must be adequately filtered to prevent it from overburdening an individual mind. Luhmann designates this filtering function as complexity reduction which is undertaken by social systems. By reducing complexity, social systems make human action possible. (P. 15)

The explanation of systems in terms of their complexity reduction role makes it clear that Luhmann rejects Ashby’s principle of ‘requisite variety’ and considers the environment to be necessarily more complex than the system (cf. Luhmann, 1991, p. 249). The latter fact leads Luhmann (1991, p. 250) to postulate the central existential challenge faced by every social system: the system has to ‘assert itself against the overwhelming complexity of the environment’. (Valentinov 16)

Ross Ashby’s law of requisite variety says “The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate.” The implication is that “since the variety of perturbations a system can potentially be confronted with is unlimited, we should always try maximize its internal variety (or diversity), so as to be optimally prepared for any foreseeable or unforeseeable contingency.” But Luhmann’s theory of operational closed (self-referential) systems rejects this view. Intrasystemic variety must be limited, not expanded to meet every new perturbation.

According to Luhmann (1997, p. 133), ‘the overall effect [of operational closure] . . . is . . . not adaptation [to the environment], but amplification of deviations’. Being to some extent free from this environmental influence, systems are likely to develop in ways that make them less, rather than more, adapted to their environments. Therefore, while adaptation to the environment is a prerequisite to structural couplings, it is possible that the intrasystemic freedom emerging from them will result in this prerequisite being undermined. (Valentinov, p.16)

The complexity-sustainability trade-off: There are two interrelated principles underpinning Luhmann’s understanding of system-environment relations.

The first principle, which can be called ‘the complexity reduction principle’, posits that systems increase their complexity by becoming increasingly insensitive to the complexity of the environment. This principle captures the basic meaning of Luhmann’s seemingly paradoxical dictum that systems increase complexity by reducing complexity (e.g., Luhmann, 2009, p. 121). The second principle, which can be
called ‘the critical dependence principle’, posits that the increasing complexity of systems is associated with their growing dependence on environmental complexity in ways that make the continuation of their autopoiesis increasingly unlikely. (p. 18)

It is the complexity reduction principle that captures the main logical difference between the theories of open and autopoietic systems and that enables the latter theory to see the relationship between systemic complexity and sustainability as potentially precarious. (p.18)

The key lesson that can be drawn from these principles is that it may be rational, for any type of social system, to withdraw its internal complexity to maintain its sustainability in a given environment. (p.19)

Follow this link  to an archive of Vladislav Valentinov’s work.

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Social acceleration and complexity

Neo-nationalism, or the general social backlash that Trump (and Brexit) represents may be understood as a retreat from social acceleration and complexity. Trump appealed to the fantasy that millions of white, non-college educating Americans share of returning to the 1950s . Sixty years ago society, understood in the Luhmannian sense as global communication, changed far less quickly. It was more stable, though it was also more oppressive for anyone living on the margins. But, somewhat paradoxically, even the fact of Trump’s election is evidence of social acceleration. Very few people believed he had a chance when he started his campaign; it wasn’t even treated as serious news. Social acceleration doesn’t have to lead to a more open or just society; it can be reactionary. Change just speeds up in unpredictable directions. And the “shrinking of the present” makes it increasingly difficult to form reliable expectations based  on past experience. In a context like this, the legal system, which is stabilizes normative expectations over time, will likely have to play a major role is managing social instability. But the legal system might be too slow.

Once source of anxiety relates to the education system, as the family system is less capable of teaching children what they need to know to live in the 21st century. The education system, therefore, may be seen a threat to the family. The family socializes children, but it cannot educate them. Furthermore, the socialization accomplished by the family faces increased competition from the mass media.

Hartmut Rosa’s 2013 book titled Social Acceleration: A New Theory of Modernity  is worth reading in this context. Here is a description from Amazon.

Hartmut Rosa advances an account of the temporal structure of society from the perspective of critical theory. He identifies three categories of change in the tempo of modern social life: technological acceleration, evident in transportation, communication, and production; the acceleration of social change, reflected in cultural knowledge, social institutions, and personal relationships; and acceleration in the pace of life, which happens despite the expectation that technological change should increase an individual’s free time.

According to Rosa, both the structural and cultural aspects of our institutions and practices are marked by the “shrinking of the present,” a decreasing time period during which expectations based on past experience reliably match the future. When this phenomenon combines with technological acceleration and the increasing pace of life, time seems to flow ever faster, making our relationships to each other and the world fluid and problematic. It is as if we are standing on “slipping slopes,” a steep social terrain that is itself in motion and in turn demands faster lives and technology. As Rosa deftly shows, this self-reinforcing feedback loop fundamentally determines the character of modern life.

Here is a Tedx talk by Professor Rosa:



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Brian Massumi on threat and the autopoiesis of affective logic

Some rough notes and tentative thoughts:

Affect is closely associated with the virtual, understood as surplus possibility, or complexity from which to select. Brian Massumi speaks of the “affect-driven logic of the could have/would have” (“The Political Ontology of Threat,” 55). The would-have/could-have is a double conditional. For example, the president argues that Saddam Hussein could have possessed weapons of mass destruction, and if he did have them he would have used them. In the end, the fact that he did not have WMD doesn’t matter because he could have had them–and then he would have used them. Better safe than sorry. Preemptive logic, as in the logic of preemptive military strike, relies the double conditional. It’s a kind of logical trap.

Preemptive action will always have been right (Massumi 54).

A threat alert is a sign, an “affective fact.” Affective facts–signs standing in for a possible event–can persuade. They can generate the same fear that the actual fact can produce. People panic just as much regardless of whether anything real backs up the threat. The objective referent isn’t necessary. A sign is enough. This is “the reality of appearance” (Whitehead). As Massumi puts it,

There is a common category of entities, known to all, that specializes in making what is not actually present really present nonetheless, in and as its own effect: signs. The sign is the vehicle for making presently felt the potential force of the objectively absent.

Massumi gives the example of a fire alarm. There is a direct connection between the fire alarm as sign and the physiological response. We don’t think about how to respond to the fire alarm. One’s body is just set in motion. It’s a reflex, probably at the brainstem level. This makes sense because in the event of an actual emergency like being caught in a fire, there is no time to think, and even less time to discuss the issue. The difference between responding to a sign of current danger (fire alarm) and responding to a sign for future danger (terrorism)  is that preemptive action is always right because of the double conditional.

A person responds to the a fire alarm because the fire alarm resonates with body, or the human sensorium–the sum of an organism’s perception; in other words, the human sensorium has resonance capability; the fire alarm irritates the sensorium, setting the body in motion. Some events resonant with the human sensorium and some don’t. For instance, only a limited range of frequencies of sound and light register.

Preemptive logic is not like logic normative logic. The rule of noncontradiction doesn’t apply.

Because it operates on an affective register and inhabits a nonlinear time operating recursively between the present and the future, preemptive logic is not subject to the same rules of noncontradiction as normative logic, which privileges a linear causality from the past to the present and it reluctant to attribute an effective reality to futurity.

Preemptive logic is based on threat. Threat, in systems-theoretical terms, is it’s symbolically generalized communication medium. It is one kind of operative logic. If threat is a communication medium, it’s like money or scientific truth that sense–a medium that can be reused and a surplus tends to be held in reserve. If a political system uses a medium like threat too much, it loses its effect. Threat, like power more generally, is most effective when held in reserve, not used indiscriminately. Its helps the regime of power if there is “surplus threat” (Massumi, 60). The threat or possibility of attack is always more effective, in the long run, than an actual attack, because the actual attack locks the attacker into a series of unpredictable consequences.

Preemptive logic doesn’t operate in the factual realm (what is/is not the case). It operates in the temporal realm—what could happen and what we must do now, in the present, to prevent it.

Proposition: If we feel a threat, there is a threat. Threat is effectively self-causing.

Corollary: If we feel a threat, such that there was a threat, then there will always have been a threat. Threat is once and for all, in the nonlinear time of its own choosing. (Massumi 54)

Is there goal for an operative logic?

“What does an operative logic want? Itself. Its own continuance. It is autopoietic. An operative logic’s self-causative powers drive it automatically to extend itself. Its autopoietic mode of operation is one with a drive to universalize itself” (Massumi 63).


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