Observing the Observers of Systems and Environments

Observing the Observers of Systems and Environments

Linda C Brigham
Cultural Critique 30-31, Part I and II (Spring and Fall 1995)
"The Politics of Systems and Environments,"
London: Oxford University Press, Spring/Fall 1995.

Linda Brigham reviews the Spring and Fall 1995 issues of Cultural Critique.

Where is the real you? Behind the eyeballs, right; the center of a panoptical cinema, your virtual head spinning around like Linda Blair’s in The Exorcist. Watching the world go by.

Wrong. The address of the Enlightenment Subject has been vacant for a long time, and the front door now opens on a brick wall, or on the threshold of an abyss. So where do we send the mail? One answer to that question is the subject of two special issues of the journal Cultural Critique, subtitled “The Politics of Systems and Environments” (Spring and Fall, 1995). As William Rasch and Cary Wolfe explain in their introduction to the first number, the term “systems” stands in the place of the old subject, and “environments” replaces the old object. Like the old subject/object dichotomy, systems and environments are relative terms; each system becomes environment to another system. But systems and environments also manifest reciprocity: in complex self-referential systems (organism and societies for example), systems-as-observers (an ocular metaphor for perception in general) know they observe observers.

Jonathon Elmer, in “Blinded Me With Science” (Spring ‘95) offers a lucid illustration of reciprocity and its implication taken from an early essay of psychoanalyst Jaques Lacan. In Lacan’s anecdote, three prisoners compete for freedom in a contest conducted by a “prison governor.” The governor explains that he has five discs, identical except for color; three are white, two black. He fastens an e on each of the prisoner’s backs, in the process concealing the color, as well as the color of the two leftover discs. Each prisoner is confined to examining the backs of his companions; none may communicate with the others. The first to correctly guess his own color wins liberty.

The governor fastens white disks on each of the prisoners. After a short while each steps toward the door. They explain: I am a white, here is how I know it. Given that my companions were whites, I thought that, if I were a black, each of them would have been able to make the following inference: “if I were also black, the other, immediately realizing from this that he is a white, would have left straight away; therefore I am not black.” And the two others would have left together, convinced of being whites. If they stayed put, it is because I am a white like them. The three prisoners are a parable of modern society, in which behavior has a double contingency, an agency enfolded into the fabric of other agents. It describes the stock market’s texture of uncertainty; it describes the novel brilliance of Poe’s hero in The Purloined Letter. This double contingency in its general form extends to more primitive systems as well. It applies in principle to perception’s effect on subsequent perception, significant to even relatively primitive self-organizing systems, such as the brain of a frog, or the phenomenon Brian Massumi calls “affect” (Fall ‘95): a response too primordial for the will, yet too rich with feedback to be reflex.

Double contingency is complex feedback, representative of a “second order cybernetics”; it is fundamental to systems theory, the more common phrase for what the Cultural Critique issues call systems and environments. German sociologist Niklas Luhmann is system theory’s foremost theoretician; his work combines sociological analysis not only with the older cybernetics, but with more recent ideas in neurobiology and cognitive psychology. Luhmann contributes generously to the Cultural Critique volumes, and many of the other essays further elaborate - as well as critique - his implications. Overall, these numbers provide a bracing introduction to Luhmann for unfamiliar readers.

Luhmann has assisted the circulation of another systems term that gets much attention here, “autopoiesis.” Autopoiesis, or self-making, comes most recently from the neurobiological work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela; it describes individuation as the result of a reiterated process of making distinctions that come, through their very reiteration, to define the emergent entity against its environing other, a process that underwrites segregations like a cell membrane, the neural pathways that form the architecture of consciousness, the organization of space, time, the soul, social institutions. Autopoiesis implies that as organisms evolve in complexity perception undergoes more and more concentrically nested processing loops, in a sense, acquiring ever greater distance from “reality.” As such, it like Luhmann, comes in for some criticism: Both Cary Wolfe and N. Katherine Hayles (Spring ‘95) observe that autopoiesis’ ever-densifying loops of reiterative processing exclude “real” contingency; Wolfe charges that autopoietic accounts of consciousness, coupled with an ethic exemplified by Varela’s Buddhism, inhibit and sidetrack efforts to grapple directly with the real conditions that create poverty and scarcity. Hayles expands on objections like these in her opening conversation with Luhmann and others in the introduction to the Fall number; Luhmann, typically, responds by relativizing space, time, and any possible “location” of reality.

If Luhmann’s response suggests a certain skepticism, readers can find the charge eloquently elaborated in articles by Dietrich Schwanitz and Peter Uwe Hohendahl (Spring ‘95). Schwanitz connects Luhmann’s emphasis on paradox - the inevitable result of total system - to a preference for irony, mathematics, schizophrenia, imagination, and literature - but also to political vacancy. Hohendahl, responding to Luhmann’s essay “Why Does Society Call Itself Postmodern?” draws out Luhmann’s pessimistic implications for deliberate reform, any change of institutional trajectory. All theory becomes internal to systems theory.

Nonetheless, the volumes also report positive applications of systems theory. William Rasch and Drucilla Cornell (Spring 95) discern in Luhmann a definite and positive function of system - namely, ethics. Ethics inoculates the social system against the “bacterium” of morality, the collapse of all social development into the deadening stasis of a blind tradition whose only terms are “right” or “wrong.” In the Fall issue, Romanticist Marjorie Levinson and political scientist Timothy Luke apply aspects of systems theory to environmentalism, the human use of inhuman beings.

Certainly one of the most powerful possibilities of systems theory is its potential for disciplinary reorganization. It demands collusion between the sciences and the humanities, and, I would hope, could help alleviate a kind of existential crisis on either side. Systems theory, it seems to me, promises the humane disciplines in particular a constructive purchase without recourse to special - as in species - rights. If nothing else, it dramatizes the material importance of reflexive reflection; indeed, in place of the old-fashioned epistemological risk of solipsism, it confronts us with the danger of drowning in the gaze of a world that is so thoroughly another subject. But that is a rich rather than an impoverished world.