George Spencer-Brown and Journalism

The following are two disconnected sections from a paper I’ve been trying to write for a long time now. The draft still needs work, but I thought I should post something since I haven’t posted anything for a while:

Luhmannian systems theory, inspired by George Spencer-Brown’s Laws of Form (1969), begins with the injunction to draw a distinction. We should emphasis that is an indeed injunction, or command. Spenser-Brown, a mathematician, likens a “draw a distinction” to a recipe or musical composition. Two-sided forms are produced by distinctions, and a form is a command that if followed opens up some possibilities while simultaneously excluding others. The excluded possibilities, or the contents of the unmarked side of the form, remain available for future selection but are ignored at least temporarily. For Spenser-Brown, any mathematical operations, as well as kind of thought, relies on a distinction; therefore, communication also relies on distinctions. Different distinctions give rise to different ways of seeing and knowing.

As Spencer-Brown (1969) writes,

We take as given the idea of distinction and the idea of indication, and that we cannot make an indication without drawing a distinction. We take, therefore, the form of distinction for the form. (p. 1)

All distinctions have a marked side, and unmarked side, and the possibility to “cross the boundary” between marked and unmarked. In Spenser-Brown’s words,

a distinction is drawn by arranging a boundary with separate sides so that a point on one side cannot reach the other side without crossing the boundary. For example, in a plane space a circle draws a distinction. Once a distinction is drawn, the spaces, states, or contents on each side of the boundary, being distinction, can be indicated” (p. 1). The space in which the distinction is drawn is called “the space severed or cloven by the distinction (p. 3).

For human consciousness as well as social systems, cognition requires the drawing of distinctions. We might call distinction a way of reducing complexity. In simple terms, if we try to take in everything we can focus on nothing.

In line with this concept of the two-side form, it is clear that autopoietic (self-producing and reproducing) systems are not entities in the ontological sense; they are differences–system/environment differences. That is to say, social systems theory does not treat systems in the ancient Greek sense as wholes made of parts (Rühl, 2008). Luhmannian systems theory is radically non-reductionist because it refuses to divide reality into whole and parts.

We can say that the journalism system draws a circle with news on the inside and non-news on the outside. To produce news, the journalistic communication must be able to cross the boundary from the marked to the unmarked sides of the form. The journalism system must continually produce news because the moment information becomes known it crosses over to the unmarked side of the form. The non-news that is repeated retains meaning but loses its news value. As Luhmann puts it, “New information is continually needed to satisfy the mass media system” because the moment information is actualized, or becomes known to the public, it loses its informative values and becomes non-information (2012, p.121).

The public, we argue, is part of the journalism system because it closes the communication loop. In other words, once a story has started circulating among the public, journalism moves on to a new story. This process is especially important in contemporary global society because, thanks in part to social media, news very quickly becomes non-news. Consequently, the journalism system rarely devotes long spans of time to a single story. And when it does stay with one story for a duration of time, it must continually uncover new details or incorporate small stories into one larger story. Autopoietic systems can learn, and the feedback loop with the public allows journalism to learn. In particular, journalism learns how to produce more news and to produce it more quickly.

… . . . .

Luhmann argues that the printing press played a decisive role in the switch from stratification to functional differentiation. This dissemination media created a tension between hierarchy and heterarchy. This fact relates to the censorship issue. As Luhmann writes,

In China and Korea, the printing press was a dissemination tool in ruling bureaucracies. In Europe, which had from the outset set its sights on the economic exploitation and market distribution of printed material, the authorities sought to resolve the conflict by means of censorship. Their failure, inevitable with the multiplicity of printing center is various territories and the rapidly increasing complexity of printed communication, finally obliged all hierarchies, including those of politics and law, to come to terms with fundamentally heterarchically communicating society. Since the eighteenth century, this state of affairs has been celebrated as the primacy of “public opinion.” As far as differentiation forms are concerned, this corresponds with the transition to functional differentiation.

Modern technology takes us an important step further. It also attacks the authority of the expert. (2012, p. 187)


The public, along with public opinion, has arisen in tandem with the journalism system, beginning with the invention of the printing press. Prior to the invention of the printing press there was no public as such. As Johannes Weber (2006), in his history of the newspaper in Europe, argues,

there is no question that the reading public was brought into existence by the beginning of printing. The same applies to the genre of political publishing and journalism in the narrower sense. (p. 388).

Since Luhmann died in 1998, he witnessed only the start of the Internet revolution. But Dirk Baecker—student, translator, and editor of Luhmann—extends Luhmann’s work in this area. Baecker lists four dissemination media—oral language, writing, print, and the computer—and argues that the introduction of a new dissemination media produces the challenge of dealing with an overflow of meaning, and the solution society finds is to switch to a new cultural form. We can add photography, film, radio, and television to this list of dissemination media, as they all cause some kind of discontinuity. As Baecker argues, a new dissemination media

triggers a catastrophe by forcing society to either switch to another mode of reproduction or to reduce the newly introduced media to some structure which is in line with society’s received and established ways for dealing with meaning, for instance to reduce writing to a device for poets memorizing their orations, the printing press to a means for circulating holy scriptures, or the computer to a data store. (Baecker 2008, p.7)

Censorship, Baecker argues, is a means of dealing with an overflow of meaning in a printing press society, not a computer-based society. Therefore, censorship alone doesn’t work anymore. The CCP cannot just censor; it must contribute new, competing information—thus the Fifty-Cent Party. It floods the mass media with competing information, and by producing more information it adds ambiguity, not clarity. It muddies the waters, so to speak. Or put another way, it increases the variety from which the public must select meaning.

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3 Responses to George Spencer-Brown and Journalism

  1. Pingback: Identity Politics and Backlash | Autopoiesis: Producing and Reproducing Systems Theory

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