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Short Note on Luhmann and Zizek

Short Note on Luhmann and Zizek

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Published by: sbulabog on Sep 14, 2011
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Short Note on Luhmann and Zizek 
 Today, sociological theory owes its vibrancy to Continental philosophers, especiallyto Slavoj Zizek. In 2008, I had been assigned a report in our class in ContemporarySociological Theory under Prof. Randy David, one was about the book Orientalismby Edward Said and the other is The Sublime Object of Ideology by Slavoj Zizek. Asusual I searched for those books in the libraries of the Diliman campus. Orientalismwas shelved in the Islamic Center library; Zizek’s book is nowhere to be found. Theonly Zizek book I managed to locate was The Ticklish Subject (I was looking for the“Object” but found the “Subject) which I found too dense for me to understand atthat time. Since I couldn’t find it I asked Prof. David if he could lend me his copy. Hesaid Prof. Gerry Lanuza just borrowed it from him. At that point I realized Zizek isthe current flavor of the season. Searching through the online library database of UP, I found that Zizek’s books were all except one had been checked out and arelong overdue for return. Those books that were recently returned were borrowedagain the same day. I thought to myself, “Who the hell is Zizek, and why is he somuch read today?”After two years of getting to know this “intellectual giant from Ljubljana,” I am nowa fan. But not after becoming a self-styled follower of, as it were, the cult of Luhmanniacs (a term invented by Randy David). Crappy as it may sound, I fell inlove with Luhmann’s systems theory and theory of distinction/differentiation, andwith Zizek’s hip psychoanalytic abstractions. I never got to present his book in class(I replaced it with Jeffrey Alexander’s Fin de Siecle Social Theory) but I suggestedand used Zizek’s theory for an undergraduate thesis by our senior sociologystudents in PUP. I have been Luhmann’s and Zizek’s texts alternately anddiscovered that albeit Zizek and Luhmann apparently never read each other, theirideas are expressions of the critical revival of Hegelianism.Last month, I chanced upon this YouTube video from the European Graduate Schoolthat featured Zizek’s discussion of “The Interaction with the Other in Hegel.” Thefirst part (of seventeen) fascinated me. Zizek was trying to elaborate his friend,Alain Badiou’s notion of event using Hegelian language. As he is wont to do, heshifted to another topic, to consciousness, explaining how David Chalmers, acognitivist who studies brain science was wrong in saying that consciousness can bereduced to neuronal interactions. Zizek noted that among cognitivists, there is somesort of consensus that would testify to Hegel’s relevance in contemporaryphilosophy.He began with “All of them admit that for these brain neuronal [interaction] to getto consciousness, a kind of magic short circuit should happen when it appears as if the result, effect causes its own cause.” Without a linear argument, he jumps to hismajor point which is “Consciousness is an operator of simplification. Consciousnesssimplifies.” To relate it to his previous topic about Badiou’s notion of the event, heclarifies that our cognition reduces instead of amplifies complexity. “This is whatBadieou meant…this crucial point (le pointe)…you have a complex situation then ata certain point you should say a decision, a yes or no—this brutal reduction.”Reading such remarks from him, I knew that Luhmann would have said the samething, except that Luhmann’s explanation is ahead of Zizek. Niklas Luhmann’sEngels C. Del RosarioPage 1
“systematic” systems theory is not just ahead of Zizek’s in terms of time (Luhmannwas 22 years older) but also in terms of complexity.For Luhmann, consciousness is a self-referential, autopoietic system, a psychicsystem whose mode of operation is consciousness itself. As an (autopoietic) system,it distinguishes itself from the rest using the distinction system/environment.Systems according to Luhmann are observing systems that operate with the use of distinctions. System formation happens in the context of a reduction of complexity.Consciousness is a system that distinguishes between what it can be conscious of and what it cannot. In this way, by way of a difference and not by a unity of opposites, as some amateur dialecticians would say, it establishes itself, that is, itmakes itself distinct from what it not by positing the difference between itself andwhat Luhmann calls the environment. The environment is the area of complexitywhile the system is the realm of reduced complexity. Zizek meets Luhmann—butonly halfway.Luhmann, in addition, also says that while a system is a reduction of complexity itdoes not and cannot control complexity as in disciplinary or domesticating actions.As one way of selecting from a diversity of possible selections (system as aselection of selections) it adds to the complexity by differentiating itself from theenvironment (external differentiation) and by differentiating within itself (internaldifferentiation). Take for example science. Previously science and religion werealmost the same mode of thinking. In premodern societies where religious authorityis infallible, scientific actions are subsumed within the encompassing religiousoutlook. Later on, as we already know from history, scientific discoveries andwritings took a life of their own and were increasingly seen as a challenge toreligious dogmas. This is an example of a system differentiation (sciencedistinguishing itself from religion) which is also external differentiation. From thenon, a system that deals exclusively in establishing truths and errors (with or, moreprecisely, without recourse to the transcendental) carved a space for itself withinand against the other possible modes of distinguishing things in the world. Sciencedid not stop at becoming aware of its identity. Within itself, it branched out(differentiation) to become natural science (subdivided further into biology, physics,and chemistry) and social science (sociology, economics, anthropology, etc) thatfurther ramified into different sciences. This internal differentiation obviouslymultiplied the distinctions (perspectives) through which we can observe the world.Zizek did not go further into discussing why consciousness is a brutal reduction of complexity by “pointing” out a yes or a no. Zizek reiterates that “The act of consciousness is precisely, when you have a complex phenomenon, and of course,in real life everything is too complex, to isolate one feature, to say ‘But it’s reallyabout this.’Luhmann would have totally agreed with this statement thatconsciousness isolates one feature (selects a selection from a variety of possibleselections) and marks it in contrast to the rest. This argument can be given an extramileage by systems theory but not by Zizek. This Lacanian philosopher, in the saidvideo, posed a question that he did not answer completely. He mentions that “theraw fact of awareness is an enigma.” He was trying to counter Chalmers’sreductionism of consciousness to some form of materialist philosophy. “The betteryou explain complex activities through neuronal processes, the more the enigma,why do you need to be aware of it. Why doesn’t it simply function as a complexEngels C. Del RosarioPage 2
computer. What is the function of awareness?” To this, no teleological answer, a laAristotle, can be suggested by systems theory. However, we can derive somehelpful ideas from Niklas Luhmann that would explain why awareness is necessaryand what function it has.Cognition is an operation of observation that indicates something, a cut in theworld, and distinguishing it from an unmarked space. Cells, if seen from the theoryof autological and autopoietic systems, are also capable of cognition because it canindicate which molecules it needs from those that it doesn’t. It may not have amind, but on the level of second-order observation it can be observed that cellsobserve the molecules they take in through their membrane. To the extent that weadmit that cells are conscious of what it needs and what it doesn’t, we can permitthe idea that consciousness is our mode of cognition. What it does, how it operates,is its function. Human consciousness, therefore, is like a machine that processesinformation by becoming conscious of them. To make this more intelligible, we must also note that Luhmann discussesconsciousness or psychic systems in relation, or more precisely, in structuralcoupling with communication—social systems. In his theory of social systems, theidea that humans are social beings is carried over. We gain our sociality because weparticipate in communication. Social systems as communication and psychicsystems as consciousness are “integrated” through meaning because both canprocess meaning. When we communicate, we decode the meaning of theinformation we “receive” (or more precisely, select) and our minds or consciousnessbecomes aware of it and interprets it by giving it meaning. Now, consciousness, of course, is not a singular phenomenon. We can say that it can differentiate itself internally into mental states, and each mental state result to differing selections(decisions, conclusions).Human consciousness can also be seen as structurally coupled to our body, abiological system. When our forearm is bitten a mosquito, our skin, as a biologicalorgan (a system) that can receive sensations, is perturbed and it activates ournervous system to address this neuro-electrical imbalance (itch) by making ourbrain command us to scratch our forearm. If Chalmers idea is to be believed, ournervous system together with our whole body can independently act and addressthe itch by making our fingers scratch our forearm. But we know that this doesn’thappen without us being conscious that our forearm is itching. And here Zizek isright in asking why do we need to be aware of it? We can say that ourconsciousness that a part of our body is itching, this consciousness, gives us thefreedom of selecting whether to first, scratch our forearm or not, and second, tochoose how are we going to scratch it and with what means. Therefore, for a hastyconclusion, we can say that the function of consciousness is freedom—freedom todecide on how to deal with our body and freedom to interpret the information thatwe process in communication with another human being.Our species has reached this stage wherein we are capable of distancing ordifferentiating our “selves” from our bodies. We cannot possibly reverse this and sowe should accept that what consciousness affords us is also its raison d’etat and itsfunction. We have freedom because our consciousness is a system that is capableof complex observation (in between structural coupling with society and with ourEngels C. Del RosarioPage 3

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