Social Order?

If we agree that societies are not grounded in basic norms or shared values–or that there is no meta-level that can influence the system–and we still feel the need for a theory of society, we need to ask how social order comes about. If we assume that there is nothing inevitable or natural about social order–that it is contingent–and that social order has not always existed on this planet, we must continuing asking the question “How is social order possible?” According to Luhmann,

In the tradition before Kant, this question was answered with reference to assumptions concerning human nature. . . . To be more precise, the reference was to the social nature of man . . . [H]uman nature was conceived of as depending on communal or city life. . . . [Yet] communal life does not just happen . . . It is possible only on the basis of social regulation that is formulated in political-ethical terms or allegedly decreed by God” (Intro 234).

In other words, society was assumed to be held together rules formulated politically or handed down by God, as in the a list of Commandments. If these rules or norms were violated, some of corrective response was called for. And despite the fact that social norms and divine commandments were continually violated, people maintained hope that they could live up to their aspirations, “become better,” be reformed, or bring the Augustinian City of God to this world. But this never happened.  Then, according to Luhmann,

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, after the religious wars, a massive shift took place. . .  The idea of the social contract seemed to be necessary. Man was seen in more skeptical terms as far as his desire for battle and bloodlust was concerned. . . As a consequence, they agree on a contract . . . and submit to a sovereign who can do everything necessary or everything he considers necessary. (Intro 234).

The sovereign is supposed to represent the indivisible unity in a system that is constituted by difference–the system/environment difference. Thus, the sovereign represents something that is not present, something that cannot be.

Politically, the sovereign came to embody the state. Thus the young Louis XIV is reputed to have declared, “L’etat, c’est moi.” But the problem with the social contract is that a “contract already presupposed an established social order” (Luhmann, Intro 234). But social order is not the same thing as peace or social harmony. A social contract does not presuppose social harmony, but it does presuppose some kind of social order, even a social order founded on tyranny. No social contract can be formed unless some kind of social order already in place.  Otherwise, how do we determine who or what is to be bound by the contract?

So if some kind of social order existed prior to the formulation of the social contract, how did this social order come about? The answer put forth was that must have been violence or the threat of violence. Thus, after the social contract theory was dropped, political theory went back to the old idea of social order imposed through violence or the threat of violence. As Luhmann argues, “From the eighteenth century onwards, one reverted to the position that the establishment of order was effected by violence. One actor overwhelms all others. Over time, a modicum of reason helps to civilize this structure of domination somewhat” (Intro 234). So even if the structure of dominance is regulated or rationalized to some extent, it is remains a stratified structure of dominance.

This model is still generally accepted. On this view, individual people must simply learn to adjust to this social order and make the best of it. But from a systems theoretical perspective, this model cannot explain modern society. For one thing, if society does not consist of human actors (that is, if those actors must remain in the environment of society), then “adjusting” or conditioning human beings to social life is not enough to reproduce social order.

For Luhmann, a social order comes about through communication, which, following communication theory, he defines as the synthesis of information, utterance, and understanding. He argues that “sociality comes about only in the fusion or synthesis of these three components. In other words, the social comes about whenever information, utterance, and understanding are produced as a unity that has feedback effects on participating psychic systems” (Luhmann Intro 190-91).

More specifically, communication systems emerge and are reproduced through “double contingency.” The model of double contingency “includes an ego and an alter that oppose one another. Each of them can be viewed as an individual or a group and has its own needs and effective abilities. The former depends on the successful performance of the later, and later on those of the former. Each one is able to perform the required task or to refuse it” (235). The last point is key: “Each one is able to perform the required task or to refuse it.” The “required task” in this case is communication. At any time, an individual or group can stop communicating; they can walk away. In other words, communication is reproduced–and thus social systems emerge–when one communicative event (a synthesis of information, utterance, and understanding) is connected to another. And a social system can only survive as long as communicative events continue to be strung together.

Once a basic social order is established through communication, it tends to gets better at reproducing communication. It produces more complex communication, and this creates the need for functional differentiation  because if a system cannot control its own complexity it breaks down. Thus the system evolves through functional differentiation. Functional systems like law, politics, religion, an art emerge to deal with different kinds of communication. These functional subsystems of society mark off their own boundaries so that they can reproduce themselves. The only raison d’etre of any system is autopoiesis, or the reproduction of it system/environment different. And in a social system every communicative event reproduces the system/environment difference.

Communication, then, happens in time. As communication theory has shown, information ceases to be information once it is understood; therefore, new information must be continually added. As soon as an utterance is understood (or made into information), a void open up for more information.

Thus, as it relates to the emergence of social order, Luhmann replaces social norms and the threats of violence with a temporal analysis of communication. Communication is a temporal, not a hierarchical, operation. There is a “temporal asymmetry” in which “[o]ne actor acts first and thereby marks a date that imposes on the other the alternative of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ of accepting or rejecting what is on offer” (237). If the other says “yes,” even if only to say “I disagree” or “I don’t understand what you mean,” the communication may continue. In other words, the other accepts the utterance as a legitimate communicative act; she turns it into information. Thus, our values, beliefs, or goals can be totally opposed, but as long as we keep communicating (even if that means only shouting at each other), then we reproduce a social system.

To sum up, a great deal of theory rests on the assumption that in modern society norms or consensus values ground “the exercise of power” (Bonds and Heep). The theory is that if brute force or threats of violence cannot maintain a social order or explain how a social order emerges to begin with, then basic norms can. But a systems theoretical analysis shows that norms, shared beliefs, etc., are produced and reproduced within communication.

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9 Responses to Social Order?

  1. wjacobr says:

    I long to make art that is DISfunctional to the social system which it otherwise must serve. This makes me think of the many ways art is tamed and controlled and maintained as one of the functional systems: gallery/investor systems, everything that feeds into the commodification of art. critic/gatekeepers. museums, ‘art history.’

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    • clclark563 says:

      Interesting. Can you tell me more?

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    • S.C. Hickman says:

      If the social system is like Luhmann suggests, communication – then it is based on filtering out the noise (“dysfunctional sounds, utterances”) in the system, and producing and reproducing only the valent communicative set (i.e., the synthesis of information, utterance, and understanding). So that your task would be to reverse this process through a nonproductive cut in the communicative system, dissolving that very communication, disrupting its information, utterance, and understanding. In past forms this has meant pushing such communication to parody, satire, or maximalization of its own systematic and encylopaedic absurdity as in Rabelais’s Gargantua or James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Else in such works as Kafka of minor literature… in art we have the recent poles of DADA or other techniques that produced discommunicative techniques of nonsense against sense (“information”), laughter and disgust against utterance, and confusion against understanding, etc. All these are forms of parody pushed to its logical conclusion, showing the automated and regulated, robotic sameness in all communication. Communication is always based on a well regulated system of signification that filters out the unnecessary to the point that even those that disagree do so by certain predefined rules, agreements, and contractually regulated forms based on negotiation, diplomacy, etc. otherwise you have mere miscommunication and Babel.

      So your art should know how art is communicating in our time, then either maximalist its system of communication to its logical conclusion; or, parody it and break with its system showing the flaws in its strategy, thereby as the poststructuralists did unraveling the black holes in its system of communication.

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      • clclark563 says:

        “If the social system is like Luhmann suggests, communication – then it is based on filtering out the noise . . ”
        I think it’s more than that. Functional subsystems of society (law, politics, art, etc.) irritate one another though structural coupling. Autopoiesis alone isn’t enough; that process alone cannot sustain a system. So art and economics irritate one another. The two subsystems couple and uncouple all the time. Kafka’s work, as you mention, would be a good example.

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      • S.C. Hickman says:

        Too me that is what filtering out the noise in a system means: to disturb it to displace the smooth from striated, etc.

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  2. wjacobr says:

    I have unanswered questions and few theories, which I face on a material and practical level: how does my work find a place, find an audience, and how do I find some means of support, without being branded, co-opted, used–or using–the existing systems within the capitalist social/economic order. Posts on my blog under Art & Capitalism https://jacobrussellsmagicnames.com/category/art-capitalism/
    deal with some of this.

    This is a problem for which I’m still trying to formulate questions. Thinking of art as a function within the social system seemed to open some doors. I post on this as ideas come to me. As a working artists, I’m interested in process–on the transactions across the networks of perception, information, politics and the personal–that go into making art. and then rendering a place for it in the social order–and the feedback that involves.

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  3. S.C. Hickman says:

    You say: “At any time, an individual or group can stop communicating; they can walk away. In other words, communication is reproduced–and thus social systems emerge–when one communicative event (a synthesis of information, utterance, and understanding) is connected to another. And a social system can only survive as long as communicative events continue to be strung together.”

    The way this is described it seems closer to the notion of diplomacy and negotiation rather than communication. I mean by that one enters into a negotiation which presupposes some agreement or contractual relation or set of rules must be adhered too. Without a framework for negotiating communication is impossible. Communication is never neutral as Luhmann appears to believe; it is not an impersonal system outside the perimeters of some form of enframing.

    When you say: “The model of double contingency “includes an ego and an alter that oppose one another. … communication is reproduced–and thus social systems emerge–when one communicative event (a synthesis of information, utterance, and understanding) is connected to another. And a social system can only survive as long as communicative events continue to be strung together.”

    This seems to set up an agon – a contest, a debate, or confrontational matrix of oppositional thought within which Luhmann says three things must be involved for a communicative event to take place: information, utterance, and understanding. So that we need to explicate what Luhmann as compared to other communications theorists means by “information,” “utterance,” and “understanding”. Information can obviously draw on a large corpus of notions from Shannon to Floridi, or from epistemic to ontological forms. What does Luhmann have to say specifically what he entails by “information” in this context? Same for utterance: is this like a collective enunciation in the sense of public communication that is formalized, or more of a system of communication for all events; suggesting a neutral communication without intent or social praxis? And, last, is this understanding – as in Kantian thought; or, some other form?

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  4. clclark563 says:

    Thank you for the comments; this gives me chance to go deeper and find arguments rather than just reading Luhmann’s work like scripture.

    “The way this is described it seems closer to the notion of diplomacy and negotiation rather than communication. I mean by that one enters into a negotiation which presupposes some agreement or contractual relation or set of rules must be adhered too. Without a framework for negotiating communication is impossible.”

    This makes me think of Luhmann’s discussion of social order. Communication presupposes some kind of social order, and communication reproducing social order. Thus the social contract cannot establish social order because it presupposes a social order.

    “Communication is never neutral as Luhmann appears to believe; it is not an impersonal system outside the perimeters of some form of enframing.”

    I’m not sure Luhmann argues that or believes that communication can be neutral. Rather, communication is founded on a asymmetry. There is a “temporal asymmetry” in which “[o]ne actor acts first and thereby marks a date that imposes on the other the alternative of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ of accepting or rejecting what is on offer” (Luhmann, Intro 237). This act of imposing something on the other shows that the interaction is not neutral.

    I’m sure what you mean by enframing, but I suspect that the concept of structural coupling, as between the economy and law. And such structural coupling would be asymmetrical.

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  5. Pingback: The Declining Relevance of Morality, Machiavelli, etc. | Autopoiesis: Producing and Reproducing Systems Theory

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