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, moved and 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.

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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Event and Structure

In Niklas Luhmann’s Theory of Politics and Law, Michael King and Chris Thornhill give a very nice explanation of information and redundancy in terms of event and structure.

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. ‘Redundancies . . . do not only exclude information, but also produce it by specifying the sensitivity of the system.’ At the same time as the system is able to distinguish structures and events according to their relevance for the system, it also communicates its own capacity to make such distinctions when confronted with different events in its environment. In addition, the aspect of the event (or new information) which is recognized by the system, which is accepted rather than excluded, now becomes part of the structure of the system. Any future identical situations in the system’s environment will no longer provide new information for the system. The relationship between redundancy and information may, therefore, be seen as ‘learning’ by the system. (49-50)

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The law as the last hope for democracy?

Some tentative thoughts …

The United States has seen increasing tension between politics and the law. President Obama, faced with an obstructionist Congress, adopted the tactic of signing executive orders, which were then subjected to litigation. Now President Trump, despite the fact that he has a Republican majority in both houses of Congress, has already signed many controversial executive orders, and these too are being litigated. The press has also been under attack, with allegations of “fake news” and a splintering mass media market. Trump’s opponents and critics are looking to the federal courts to rein in executive power, seeing the legal system as the last hope for preserving liberal values of inclusiveness and multiculturalism, or for preserving democracy itself.  Trump’s actions are seen a very dangerous power grab. He has spoken of “so-called” judges as well as “fake media” (meaning The Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, etc.).  Similar tensions between politics and law are evident in western Europe as neo-nationalism rises. One question to ask is, how much trust should we place in the global legal system to resist anti-globalist, neo-nationalistic movements? Or, how much faith can we place in the law to protect democracy?

One problem is that we may think we can use law to make society “better.” In other words, we try to use law to advance a political or moral agenda. But law is its own autopoietic system and, as such, cannot be controlled from the outside. It can only be irritated from the outside.

To what extent can the law be used to advance issues like human rights? Certainly, there have been successes, such as the NAACP’s victory in Brown v. Board of Education, but there are always unforeseen consequences. These unforeseen consequences might the interesting thing to analyze from a social systems theory perspective.

The law in itself is not a force for good or evil. It merely stabilizes normative expectations, and society relies on this function. Without this function, a system like politics or the economy could just destroy everything.

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Luhmann: Law, Justice, and Time

Given the function of the law is to stabilize normative expectations, time is the most relevant dimension.

In an article titled “Luhmann: Law , Justice, and Time,” Richard Nobles & David Schiff (2013) wrote:

Time is central to Luhmann’s writings on social systems. Social systems, as systems of meaning, operate within three dimensions: factual, social and temporal. Each of these dimensions entails selections of actualities from potentialities (or contingencies) within horizons. Whilst the factual dimension involves selections based on distinguishing ‘this’ from ‘something else’, and the social distinguishes between alter and ego (asking with respect to any meaning whether another experiences it as I do), the temporal dimension operates with the primary distinction of before and after. In the temporal dimension, everything is ‘ordered only according to the when and not to the who/what/where/how of experience and action’ (Luhmann in Social Systems Social. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1995, p. 78).

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Disequilibrium and the Fallacy of Composition

This a continuation of my previous post. Still trying to work out some ideas.


The equilibrium model seems to be tied to the whole/part differentiation, which includes the idea that society is the aggregate or sum total of people. If we think in terms of a whole that can be broken into parts, then we might go on to think about how to balance those parts or to assume that the parts should be balanced. In contrast, if we think in terms of the system/environment distinction, we will not worry about balancing parts. For instance, the economic system is not a part of society; it has, rather, differentiated out from society.

Only structurally closed systems can be adequately described with the equilibrium model. Selectively open systems cannot achieve equilibrium because their environments are not unchanging. Some theories, such as economic theories that don’t take into account instability produced by technologies or human whims, depend on the myth of the unchanging environment.

A biological system, such as an organ, is not part of a larger whole. The pancreas, for instance, is not a part of the body. It is a system in itself with its own environment, which is everything that can potentially irritate it or destroy it. We can cut off a hand without impacting the pancreas. This implies that the hands do not belong to environment of the pancreas. And we can destroy our eyes without impairing our hearing and vice versa.

Thinking in terms of wholes and parts is known as the fallacy of composition. It says that a whole is equal to the sum of its parts; however, this only works when the parts are identical, such as when adding up the number of nuts or bolts in a piece of machinery. If the nuts or bolts are all the same, we can justifiable sum them up. One example from economics of the fallacy of composition is the assumption that because household saving leads to greater wealth if all households save then society as a whole will become wealthier. This isn’t true because if everyone saves, demand for goods and services falls, which means people will lose jobs or have their pay cut and therefore have to spend savings. Household savings when aggregated can lead to a decline of savings on the macro scale. We cannot simply scale up microeconomics to describe macroeconomics. Geoffrey Hodgson (1987) discussed this in “Economics and Systems Theory.” It’s called the paradox of thrift.

Selectively open systems must stabilize themselves because their environments are subject to change. But stability is not the same as equilibrium in closed-system terms. According to Luhmann,

In the evolution-theoretical literature . . . selection and stabilization are often combined in a single concept. The talk then is of “selective retention” or “stabilizing selection.” This was plausible as long as biology, not to mention economic theory, understood selection to be natural selection by an environment and the outcome to be “optimal fit.” Stability was described as “equilibrium,” which used homeostatic mechanisms to balance out disturbances and reestablish a state of equilibrium. However this required a fixed equilibrium point not displaced by any deviations that might occur. On condition that the environment itself did not change, this needed no further provision for stabilization after structural change. This view is now hardly upheld. It is dynamic systems that are amenable to evolution, systems far from being in equilibrium and that can reproduce. This is all the more true if we are obliged to abandon this premise, if we understand selection (as we do) to be a purely internal process. (Theory of Society, vol 1. p. 292)

A system’s operations are structurally determined; they are not determined by a system’s environment. Environmental or ecological conditions do not select traits; the environment can only irritate a system and provoke an indeterminate response. A system makes selections from among possible variations. Thus, every selection is contingent and made on a moment-to-moment basis without foreknowledge of potential advantages. Selections must be compatible with environmental conditions, but this doesn’t mean that the environment selects traits.

Innovated structures [those produced by positive selection] have to be adapted to the system and must be compatible with its environmental conditions without advance knowledge (upon selection) of whether and how this can be managed. (293)

Evolutionary innovations call for system restabilization. Both positive and negative selections bring destabilization and also initiate restabilization, which we might also think of information processing.

What is meant by positive and negative selection? These terms are employed in population genetics. Positive (Darwinian) selection is also called directional selection, while negative selection is known as purifying selection. Positive selections change structures.

Or, according to Guilherme Borges Dias, we may think of natural selection as disruptive, directional and stabilizing.

  • Disruptive: the extreme statuses of a trait are favored over the intermediate values.
  • Directional: one extreme phenotype is favored and, even if determined by a recessive allele, will eventually become fixed.
  • Stabilizing: lowers diversity and favors the intermediate variants of a trait.

Stabilizing selection, which is not synonymous with negative selection, favors the average or intermediate over the extreme. In social terms, eccentricity or exceptionality would not be favored. There is a reversion or regression to the mean. For instance, after a few generations a “great family” typically declines in status to become an ordinary family. The exceptional wealth is typically not retained.

Stabilizing selection commonly uses negative selection (a.k.a. purifying selection) to select against extreme values of the character. Stabilizing selection is the opposite of disruptive selection. Instead of favoring individuals with extreme phenotypes, it favors the intermediate variants. It reduces phenotypic variation and maintains the status quo. Natural selection tends to remove the more severe phenotypes, resulting in the reproductive success of the norm or average phenotypes. (Wikipedia)

Disruptive (or diversifying) selection favors both extremes of a spectrum. We might think of an economy that increases the numbers of the rich and the poor while reducing the middle classes.

Luhmann argues,

For living beings, the function of restabilization is performed by the formation of populations–population being understood in this context as the reproductive isolation of a gene pool that can accept variations to a limited extent and include them in reproduction . . . Very few ecological factors still intervene, namely, only those that can inhibit reproduction. (291-93).

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From equilibrium to information processing/ Informationsverarbeitungsprozess 

In a functionally differentiated world society, there is no real equilibrium. So when people say things like “We can balance economic growth with environmental protection” they are just kidding themselves. What they really mean is that we can have economic growth without causing excessive damage to the natural environment; then we have to talk about what excessive damage means. But we can’t honestly claim that we aren’t damaging (or at least destabilizing) the natural environment.


The equilibrium model cannot handle complexity. It belongs to a mechanistic worldview. But when we deal with autopoietic systems, structurally coupling, and irritation, we’re not talking about balance. The economy, for instance, can irritate and even destroy other systems, but there can never be a balance between systems. Society, understood as a vast system of communication, can irritate and even destroy all life on this planet, but there can’t be any balance. There cannot be balance between a system and its environment. As in any two-sided form, the marked and unmarked sides are not balanced. One side is ignored or not seen.

Along with irritation, we can speak of “disturbance,” as in saying that a system may be disturbed by its environment. But, as Luhmann argues,

If one uses the term “disturbance,” one must be clear about the fact that one is no longer dealing with a theory of equilibrium. Theories of equilibrium or balance had also included the concept of disturbance. In fact, the entire model had been formulated in two directions in terms of disturbances. On the one hand, there was the easiness or probability of disturbance. If you think of scales, it takes very little force, just a few added grams to one side, to disturb the balance. [These ideas] emerged in the seventeenth century and concerned the artificiality of the balance or trade or the international balance of power. But on the other hand, one always imagined that the equilibrium has a sort of infrastructure or apparatus at its disposal that serves it self-maintenance. As a consequence, a disturbance leads to the reconstitution of the equilibrium. . . . In principle, however, the meaning of this model, which, to be sure, is really a metaphor, was to earmark equilibrium as a stable system. Or . . . one might say that, in such a model, the maintenance of the system structure is tied to the concept of equilibrium. (Introduction to Systems Theory, p. 88-89)

Instead of stability guaranteed by balance, we can speak of stabilization, destabilization, and re-stabilization. In this way, we can account for the evolution of dynamic systems (e.g., population). In this sense, the linkage of stability with equilibrium doesn’t work anymore. As Luhmann writes,

Today this linkage has become questionable in several respects. On the one hand, in natural science the prevalent idea is that it is precisely imbalance which can be stable, and in economics a system is said to be stable if either too many goods are on offer and there are too few buyers or, vice versa, if there are too many buyers and not enough goods. . . . This tendency puts the old model in doubt. If, on the other hand, one proceeds from ideas of autopoiesis, operational closure, and structural coupling, the balance model becomes questionable simply because one would have to regard imbalances and balances as functional equivalents, since both serve to maintain stability.  . . . Now, the question is how a disturbance can be conceptualized internally within the system if one does without the equilibrium model. (p. 89)

We can think in terms of information processing. Irritations, perturbations, or disturbances cause destabilization, which must be followed up by restabilization. Stable systems consist of structures (or structural patterns) and a range of possible operations. The irritation (or whatever we call it) can become information within the system and for the system.

A disturbance, a piece of information, or an irritation provides the system with a relevant choice from a range of possibilities. Such an occurrence can initiate search or identification processes. (89)

A structure may be a pattern of expectations, and these expectations constrain the range of possible interpretation. If we hear some kind of music (or a sound pattern that resembles music as we know it), we won’t interpret it as a dog barking. We identify the sound pattern as music. We might then search to identify the kind of music it is. The speed at which we can do this is restrained by the capacity of the system. As Luhmann puts it,

the range of interpretive possibilities corresponds to the speed and the information processing capacity of the system.

“Disturbance” therefore means the initiation of information processing that can be handled operationally in the system. . . The concept of disturbance is thus detached from the equilibrium model and adapted in order to described something that could better be called an information-processing process [Informationsverarbeitungsprozess].

A population, such the domestic cat (Felis catus), can be understood as a gene pool, which we can also call a closed, autopoietic system. Such a system can process information internally if it is irritated by its environment. But this is not the same as maintaining equilibrium in the gene pool.

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