What Is Holding Societies Together?

We can only think in terms society falling apart if we start with the assumption that society is a whole consisting of parts, which it is not. What we call society is an observation, and every observation has a horizon. As I sit in this room typing, I cannot see the whole room because I don’t have eyes all over my body. The only way to see the whole room would be step outside of it. If I listen to the room, that is a different observation. There is no reason to privilege vision, but auditory, tactile, olfactory, and taste  each have their own horizons, as well as memories. If I observe society in a theoretical sense, that’s a cognitive observation, and I tap into the science function system.

Another question is, Who or what observes society? Society observers itself. Or more specifically, systems observe society. One system that observes society is the science system, or more specifically the social sciences, or more specifically sociology. And sociology, of course, cannot observe society from the outside. Science observes society through the distinction of true/not-true. And science, like all autopoietic systems, has a memory; it remembers what is true and forgets what is not true. Science has forgotten, fortunately, that the Earth is in the center of the cosmos, that animals don’t have emotions, that men are smarter than women, etc.

Returning the first first question, Dirk Baecker asks,

What is holding societies together? The question is curiously moving. Do societies fall apart, then? And if they do, what do their parts fall into, if not once again into what we call society? So is the question redundant? Or is it just being put the wrong way? Should we perhaps start out by saying that they do hold together while falling apart, or even that what keeps them together is, in fact, that they fall apart, and vice versa?

“What Is Holding Societies Together? On Culture Forms, World Models, and Concepts of Time.” Criticism (Winter 2011), Vol. 53, No. 1, pp. 1–22.

If we think society is falling apart in a ethical,moral, or cultural sense, we are applying a normative model.  We say that society is not what it is supposed to be; it is falling short somehow. But this is a self-description of society. And if society can still describe itself, it must not have fallen apart yet.

Yet what stands out, and is a common premise among sociologists, is that
concern about society happens in societies, which have found their own
patterns of reproduction, mostly regardless of this concern, and know
how to maintain them. (Baecker 1)

We don’t worry about “our” society falling apart until we compare it to other societies, whether contemporary or past societies or maybe future, science-fiction societies that we are falling short of.  We worry that our society (or social order or culture) is falling away from a normative ideal, and/or we worry about being influenced by other societies once we become aware of them.  We don’t even know we have a particular culture or social order until we confront populations that live or observe differently.  But all the while, our social order is reproducing itself because the system keeps asking What’s next?

This initially happens with segmentary tribal societies encounter each other, or when tribal boundaries are crossed.

Observation is recursive, so observation of society is recursive. Or we can say that society itself is recursive. Recursivity entails time and memory. Time is an observation, and the temporal model changes as forms of social differentiation change. The observation of time is a central concern. We see this in Luhmann’s argument that law’s function is the stabilization of expectations. We orient ourselves to reality through expectations. So the question to ask is not What is reality? or Where are we? but rather What comes next? As long as society keeps asking this question, it keeps reproducing itself. Society is recursive because it keeps asking the same question, What’s next?

We are dwelling on the idea of a recursive function because it helps to define two minimal conditions constituting a society’s cohesiveness. The first minimal condition states that society does carry on. And the second declares that whatever is carrying on remains recognizable as a society (and not as something else altogether).

A third minimal condition is already contained in the first two: there must obviously be a kind of cognition that recognizes society as society. This cognition must accompany the reproduction of society. (Baecker 2)

The cognition of society is the reproduction of society.

What we are initially concerned with here is formulating a hypothesis. And this hypothesis maintains that the form of recursivity that holds society together consists of two elements, and only two. There is the structure of a surplus of meaning and the culture of dealing with this surplus selectively. We underpin this hypothesis with two concepts. The first is that of a structure that is grounded in a free-form order of events deriving from the decay of this order. The second is that of a culture that is grounded in every known society in possessing the possibilities for quarreling over the right and the wrong, especially about the right and the wrong way of selecting events. The structure carries the surplus, the culture the selection, and both are possible only when the respective other is present. (5)

OK, so we have a structure that consists of a surplus of meaning and a culture that selects from this surplus. Culture selects meaning. Selection is only necessary in a context of surplus. Example: I have a surplus of socks in my dresser drawer and I need to select just one pair. Or every utterance has a surplus of meaning, and understanding is a selection from this surplus.

Memory is important here, as it shapes selections of meaning. If I’ve never read or seen Hamlet performed, when you mention Hamlet’s depression, what will that mean to me? I need to select something if the communication is going to continue. Maybe you are talking about your cat Hamlet’s depression.

No meanings are ever transferred in tact from a sender to receiver. Signifier and signified are different. Spoken language introduces the possibility of misunderstanding, confusion, lying, argument, etc. Baecker argues that tribal societies formed to deal with this disruption, or catastrophe.

Baecker talks about four types, or exemplary cases, of society–tribal society, stratified society, functionally differentiated society, and next society. Each type forms to deal with a particular disruption in communication media. Each also gives rise to particular world model and different patterns of dealing with time and mobility (6).

First of all, let us propose a tribal society that, we would suspect, is a product of coping with the catastrophe caused by introducing language. According to Charles Darwin, humans began to talk to each other four million years ago in order to attract, warn, and comfort one another. That means they began coordinating their behavior not just via their body language—gestures and mimicry, violence and sexuality, approach and withdrawal, attentiveness and indifference. Instead, they proceeded indirectly through words, which do not actually refer to something already  determined within the thing they are denoting. Instead, in each case their behavior had to be determined and motivated by these words in the context of their current usage. This has remained, right up to today, an issue in the theory of signs.

How does a community coordinate communal life via signs? A sign is the difference between signifier and signified. Mis/understanding must happen if communication is to continue. Communication is mis/understanding. As long as one utterance can be linked up with a subsequent utterance, communication happens. Even if I think Hamlet might be your cat, communication happens. We can discuss that. Tribal life is all about dealing with this experience, and tribal leaders are needed to resolve disputes. Thus, the origin of politics.

Time Differences

[A] tribal society seems to imagine that every individual event is only an element in the eternal recurrence of sameness. Time, as Jacques Derrida will later formulate it, is itself only a name for a boundary that was traversed. (8)

Speech presents a surplus of meaning, as words can understood differently, which relates to system memory–Do I remember Hamlet’s soliloquy?  Later, writing increases the surplus of meaning. Print then increases the surplus even further, as everything that is printed and read can be negated or criticized or interpreted differently, and we assume that other people have read or can read what we’ve read. I can dispute your argument because I’ve read recent, credible research that questions your theory. Reason, in age of print, is then put forward as the universal arbitrator of disputed meanings. There are books that we can that we can both consult and discuss; there’s a sense of permanence in those printed words–a sense of the eternal.

Time, again

Tribal societies, founded in oral communication, did not need to conceive of a difference between the temporal and the eternal. Your words vanish after you utter them, unless they are repeated or stitched into subsequent communication. So stories have to told and retold. But writing changes this sense of time. Rather than the eternal recurrence of sameness (retelling the same stories, with changes, over and over), writing allows society to make a split between ephemerality and eternity.  Speech if ephemeral; writing is relatively permanent, or until the text is lost. Eternity is beyond the horizon, in the unmarked space, the unmarked side of the two-sided form. Ephemerality is the marked side. Everything that happens in life is temporary. Everything we can know or observe is temporary. But we assume that eternity exists, or must exist, on the other side of the changing horizon.

Along with time, space and movement through space (mobility) must be considered. In the age or (hand)writing, or stratified society, things can be observed to move toward or away from a natural goal, purpose, or telos. We can move toward the horizon but never reach it. All movement can be seen as movement toward or away from a natural or quasi-natural place, the place where something should be but isn’t. This entails ontology, and it corresponds to a stratified society, the society that has writing in addition to speech. This also entails ethics, morality, or normativity, which is about how people should behave but don’t.

So along with ethics, ontology and teleology come into play with writing.

If we understand the cultural technique of teleology as an answer to the structural problem of writing’s surplus of symbols, then it connotes an ontological model of the world that still influences us today. First off, ontology means nothing more than being schooled in enquiry into appropriate places and looking into the very essence of every thing, event, and individual. That is enough of an upheaval because it does, after all, mean extracting things from their social relations, where they had previously seemed so securely and at the same time unsettlingly anchored. It is now possible to enquire into the essence of things and to emancipate them vis-à-vis their society—at least to the extent that they can then be dealt with in a way that registers very unpleasantly with philosophers concerned about telos. (Baecker 10-11)

With writing, language is taken out of its interactional, face-to-face context, and we then start to wonder where the “proper place” of things is. Where did things begin, where are they going, where do they belong, etc. What is the permanent reality beyond changing appearance, the substance underneath qualities? Thus we get ontology and teleology.

What keeps society together? It is the question itself that keeps society together.

Our answer to the question this contribution’s title poses about what keeps society together thus reads as follows: society is kept together by a structure that guarantees the possibility of a surplus of meaning in combination with a culture of selectively using and reproducing this surplus. . . .

And the culture of selective use is explicable by the fact that there is no other way. Here, at the very latest, an evolutionary model of thinking appears. It does, however, turn Darwinian evolution upside down, because selection does not only materialize
from selective breeders, standing in for nature, but also among the elements offering variations. . .

What is decisive in our attempt to answer the question posed, however, is how the combination of structure and culture we postulate comes about. We suspect: through the form of recursivity through which society is produced and reproduced. Society can only have recourse to itself when it reproduces itself. With that, however, it immediately manufactures the problem of its reproduction, too; that is, the complexity of the way it refers to meaning. So it is, in the truest sense of the word, the question itself—what keeps society together?—which keeps society together. That is because this question is concerned precisely with an operation of selective connection that reproduces society. This operation replaces the spirits, devils and gods, stories and natures we would have to depend on in any other case. In the next society, we have to depend on having made a start toward understanding something about the form of this operation. (17-18)


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2 Responses to What Is Holding Societies Together?

  1. Pingback: Is there a diagnosis market? | Autopoiesis: Producing and Reproducing Systems Theory

  2. Pingback: Brian Massumi on threat and the autopoiesis of affective logic | Autopoiesis: Producing and Reproducing Systems Theory

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