Luhmann, Lacan, and the Cult Leader/Sovereign

Donald Trump is a lot like a cult leader, not so different from Jim Jones.  No matter what he does, his devotees will follow him. The more he is criticized by “outsiders” and shown to be a megalomaniac, the stronger the the devotion of his followers grows.


But what makes a cult leader? Essentially, a cult leader never expresses any self-doubt, never questions himself, never shows a hint of weakness. In other words, he presents himself as a person who can control everything and knows what the future will bring. He appears not at all anxious about the future, and he expresses no regrets about anything he’s done in the past. He seems to be a person at peace with himself and in complete control; he is the the sovereign, the big Other of the Lacan’s symbolic order–the “subject supposed to know.”  But this cannot be, because knowing presupposes not-knowing; there must be an unmarked, un-indicated space. Knowing or seeing anything relies on an excluded “blind spot,” but the excluded is also included as that which is excluded.

From a systems theory perspective, the positing of the “subject supposed to know” reveals an attempt to dissolve the paradox of the system that is the difference between system and environment. This paradox leads one to ask, How can a system form itself by drawing a distinction between itself and its environment? To do draw a distinction, the system must already be a system, right? There must already be a system/environment difference–if the system is to draw a distinction, or do anything else–right?

But the distinction itself remains on the the unindicated side of the distinction. Luhmann writes that Spencer Brown’s first injunction, “Draw a distinction!” conceals a paradox

due to the fact that the distinction must be and is drawn merely in order to distinguish one side. Thus every distinction contains two components: indication and distinction. The distinction contains itself, but apparently in a very specific form–namely, as the distinction between distinction and indication. (Introduction to Systems Theory, 60-61).

What is this “distinction between distinction and indication”? For Spencer-Brown it is a re-entry of the distinction into the distinction. Yet, the “first distinction” and the re-entry happen simultaneously. The distinction is immediately reproduced. How do we dissolve this paradox?

We must introduce time into an operation that happens now and only now.  In other words, we need a temporal observation schema which will be employed by an external observer. It takes time to cross the boundary of the form. Luhmann argues that

the re-entry of the form into the form–or of the distinction into the distinction, or the difference between system and environment into the system–should be understood as referring to the same thing twice. The distinction re-enters the distinguished. This constitutes re-entry. Is the distinction now the same distinction it was before? Is that which existed before still there? Or does the first distinction disappear and thus become the second one. The answer is that we might well suspect that we are dealing with a paradox here, and that means that the distinction that re-enters itself  is the same and, at the same time, not the same. (Intro 6o)

How can we dissolve this paradox? Luhmann argues that the paradox can be dissolved with the help of “the distinction between external and internal observation” (61). In other words, we move to another level, or we shift to an outside perspective. As Luhmann writes,

One dissolves a paradox by postulating two levels–a meta-level and a lower level, or the external observer and the self-observer–and by making this more or less plausible. (Intro 60-61).

In other words, we invent a plausible fiction.

Let’s compare the Lacanian imaginary. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy,

Throughout his teachings, Lacan regularly utilizes the terms “other” (with a lower-case o) and “Other” (with a capital O). Given an understanding of also  register theory and the mirror stage, these terms can be clarified with relative ease and brevity. The lower-case-o other designates the Imaginary ego and its accompanying alter-egos. By speaking of the ego itself as an “other,” Lacan further underscores its alien and alienating status . . .  Additionally, when relating to others as alter-egos, one does so on the basis of what one “imagines” about them (often imagining them to be “like me,” to share a set of lowest-common-denominator thoughts, feelings, and inclinations making them comprehensible to me). These transference-style imaginings are fictions taming and domesticating the mysterious, unsettling foreignness of one’s conspecifics, thereby rendering social life tolerable and navigable.

Let’s ask again what it means to dissolve the paradox of the re-entry of the distinction into the distinguished? We postulate an external observer, which, of course, observes from outside the system, like God standing outside the world he has created. But we must also keep in mind that all efforts to dissolve the paradox of re-entry rest on a self-deception. Yet, we may also recognize the process as self-deception and still find it useful. That is to say, the process of dissolving paradoxes can be useful for coming up with approximate or practical descriptions of a system, but these descriptions can never be more than useful fictions. The plausible fiction renders social life tolerable and navigable, yet it can never actually get inside “the black box” of an operationally closed system.  

The external observer, by employing a temporal schema, can observe a system over time; however, autopoiesis happens in the moment. Each autopoietic event passes away the moment it occurs, and it must be replaced by another autopoietic event. While autopoiesis must be reproduced every moment, the sense of duration or sameness across time is produced by the schema employed by an external observer. 

Moreover, the observing system has access to other distinctions that shape how it observes (e.g., the mass media uses the new/known (or information/non-information) distinction to observe all other systems, and only notices the new). If we then want to know what the observer sees,  we can observe the observer, and then create our own plausible account of what that observer sees. We have to use second-order observation, observing observation.

Similarly, in politics the sovereign stands outside his kingdom; he is an external observer of his kingdom, and the laws he proclaims do not apply to himself.  The sovereign, like Christ or the Word of God, is “in the world but not of the world.”

The position of the sovereign is constructed by dissolving the paradox of the re-entry of the distinction into the distinguished. The sovereign stands on a meta-level and sees everything and knows everything at once. The sovereign represents the unity of a difference–more specifically, the unity of the system/environment difference.

The Cult and the Old Sense of Time

We can look further into the issue of time and the sovereign or cult leader. The cult leader takes his followers back to an ancient sense of time. From a systems theory perspective, the sovereign shifts the temporal schema. Modern society observes time through a past/future schema in which the present is the difference between past and future. In contrast, for “pre-modern” society, the temporal schema was eternity/time (aeternitas/tempus). With the eternity/time schema, there is no past/future difference; time is whole and undifferentiated. Thus, there is no cause for anxiety about the future and no reason to regret the past. (Hence, the narcissist’s lack of shame or guilt.) The “past,” which is not actually past, can be altered or restructured simply by telling a new story–changing the narrative that we tell today. And the “future,” which is not the future as modern society thinks of it, already exists. Under this paradigm, the future is a sort of spatial destination that already exists and is waiting our arrival. The future has already been prepared for us. 

Hence, Trump’s basic rhetorical strategy is to tell his followers, “Trust me, I got this.” The more anxious someone feels about the future, the more they will gravitate toward someone who tells them it’s all under control. Their salvation is assured; their place in paradise is waiting for them.

It seems that Trump’s devotees have a great deal of anxiety about the future, mostly related to the instability associated with globalization. They have a lot of fear, which is why it was a huge mistake to frame Trump and his followers as “angry.” The Church of Trump quickly embraced this description. “Yes,” they said, “we are mad as a hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!” But the truth is that they are afraid–very afraid– but  no one wants to admit they are afraid. It’s better to be an angry victim. 

In terms of globalization, we see that autopoietic functional subsystems of society (politics, the economy, law, religion, education, mass media, science, etc.) easily perturb one another, and perturbation destabilizes systems. So autopoietic systems respond by testing a variety of potentially re-stabilizing structures; when it hits on a structure that re-stabilizes the system, it then reproduces that structure.

Clearly, the global economic system has seriously destabilized a number of functional systems within the United States; people are worried about “their” country being flooded by refugees, for example. And it makes some sense that the a media-savvy con-artist like Trump could take advantage of this fact by pretending to restabilize America by postulating a “great” future that already exists and is waiting for all us.  Of course, any political opposition must begin by positing a destabilized for broken social system because there has to be something that needs restabilizing or “fixing.” There has to be some kind of “carnage” in society.

But Trump has no hope at all of restabilizing the global societal system or the domestic social system. No president, even a wise one, has that kind of power anymore. Not even the whole federal government with all three branches working together (which they can’t really do anymore) has the power to significantly control globalization. The global society is too functionally differentiated for any one system, such as a state, to control it from either the center or from the top. No one knows what the global society will look even in the short term. That is to say, no one knows how the societal system will restabilize itself.

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5 Responses to Luhmann, Lacan, and the Cult Leader/Sovereign

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