Short Note on Luhmann and Zizek

Today, sociological theory owes its vibrancy to Continental philosophers, especially to Slavoj Zizek. In 2008, I had been assigned a report in our class in Contemporary Sociological Theory under Prof. Randy David, one was about the book Orientalism by Edward Said and the other is The Sublime Object of Ideology by Slavoj Zizek. As usual I searched for those books in the libraries of the Diliman campus. Orientalism was shelved in the Islamic Center library; Zizek’s book is nowhere to be found. The only 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 at that time. Since I couldn’t find it I asked Prof. David if he could lend me his copy. He said Prof. Gerry Lanuza just borrowed it from him. At that point I realized Zizek is the 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 are long overdue for return. Those books that were recently returned were borrowed again the same day. I thought to myself, “Who the hell is Zizek, and why is he so much read today?” After two years of getting to know this “intellectual giant from Ljubljana,” I am now a 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 in love with Luhmann’s systems theory and theory of distinction/differentiation, and with 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 suggested and used Zizek’s theory for an undergraduate thesis by our senior sociology students in PUP. I have been Luhmann’s and Zizek’s texts alternately and discovered that albeit Zizek and Luhmann apparently never read each other, their ideas are expressions of the critical revival of Hegelianism. Last month, I chanced upon this YouTube video from the European Graduate School that featured Zizek’s discussion of “The Interaction with the Other in Hegel.” The first 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, he shifted to another topic, to consciousness, explaining how David Chalmers, a cognitivist who studies brain science was wrong in saying that consciousness can be reduced to neuronal interactions. Zizek noted that among cognitivists, there is some sort of consensus that would testify to Hegel’s relevance in contemporary philosophy. He began with “All of them admit that for these brain neuronal [interaction] to get to 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 his major point which is “Consciousness is an operator of simplification. Consciousness simplifies.” To relate it to his previous topic about Badiou’s notion of the event, he clarifies that our cognition reduces instead of amplifies complexity. “This is what Badieou meant…this crucial point (le pointe)…you have a complex situation then at a 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 same thing, except that Luhmann’s explanation is ahead of Zizek. Niklas Luhmann’s Engels C. Del Rosario Page 1

“systematic” systems theory is not just ahead of Zizek’s in terms of time (Luhmann was 22 years older) but also in terms of complexity. For Luhmann, consciousness is a self-referential, autopoietic system, a psychic system 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, it makes itself distinct from what it not by positing the difference between itself and what Luhmann calls the environment. The environment is the area of complexity while the system is the realm of reduced complexity. Zizek meets Luhmann—but only halfway. Luhmann, in addition, also says that while a system is a reduction of complexity it does not and cannot control complexity as in disciplinary or domesticating actions. As one way of selecting from a diversity of possible selections (system as a selection of selections) it adds to the complexity by differentiating itself from the environment (external differentiation) and by differentiating within itself (internal differentiation). Take for example science. Previously science and religion were almost the same mode of thinking. In premodern societies where religious authority is infallible, scientific actions are subsumed within the encompassing religious outlook. Later on, as we already know from history, scientific discoveries and writings took a life of their own and were increasingly seen as a challenge to religious dogmas. This is an example of a system differentiation (science distinguishing itself from religion) which is also external differentiation. From then on, a system that deals exclusively in establishing truths and errors (with or, more precisely, without recourse to the transcendental) carved a space for itself within and against the other possible modes of distinguishing things in the world. Science did 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) that further ramified into different sciences. This internal differentiation obviously multiplied 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 really about this.’” Luhmann would have totally agreed with this statement that consciousness isolates one feature (selects a selection from a variety of possible selections) and marks it in contrast to the rest. This argument can be given an extra mileage by systems theory but not by Zizek. This Lacanian philosopher, in the said video, posed a question that he did not answer completely. He mentions that “the raw fact of awareness is an enigma.” He was trying to counter Chalmers’s reductionism of consciousness to some form of materialist philosophy. “The better you 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 complex Engels C. Del Rosario Page 2

computer. What is the function of awareness?” To this, no teleological answer, a la Aristotle, can be suggested by systems theory. However, we can derive some helpful ideas from Niklas Luhmann that would explain why awareness is necessary and what function it has. Cognition is an operation of observation that indicates something, a cut in the world, and distinguishing it from an unmarked space. Cells, if seen from the theory of autological and autopoietic systems, are also capable of cognition because it can indicate which molecules it needs from those that it doesn’t. It may not have a mind, but on the level of second-order observation it can be observed that cells observe the molecules they take in through their membrane. To the extent that we admit that cells are conscious of what it needs and what it doesn’t, we can permit the 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 processes information by becoming conscious of them. To make this more intelligible, we must also note that Luhmann discusses consciousness or psychic systems in relation, or more precisely, in structural coupling with communication—social systems. In his theory of social systems, the idea that humans are social beings is carried over. We gain our sociality because we participate in communication. Social systems as communication and psychic systems as consciousness are “integrated” through meaning because both can process meaning. When we communicate, we decode the meaning of the information we “receive” (or more precisely, select) and our minds or consciousness becomes 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, a biological system. When our forearm is bitten a mosquito, our skin, as a biological organ (a system) that can receive sensations, is perturbed and it activates our nervous system to address this neuro-electrical imbalance (itch) by making our brain command us to scratch our forearm. If Chalmers idea is to be believed, our nervous system together with our whole body can independently act and address the itch by making our fingers scratch our forearm. But we know that this doesn’t happen without us being conscious that our forearm is itching. And here Zizek is right in asking why do we need to be aware of it? We can say that our consciousness that a part of our body is itching, this consciousness, gives us the freedom of selecting whether to first, scratch our forearm or not, and second, to choose how are we going to scratch it and with what means. Therefore, for a hasty conclusion, we can say that the function of consciousness is freedom—freedom to decide on how to deal with our body and freedom to interpret the information that we process in communication with another human being. Our species has reached this stage wherein we are capable of distancing or differentiating our “selves” from our bodies. We cannot possibly reverse this and so we should accept that what consciousness affords us is also its raison d’etat and its function. We have freedom because our consciousness is a system that is capable of complex observation (in between structural coupling with society and with our Engels C. Del Rosario Page 3

body), something that other autopoietic systems can’t do. Now, to ask why do we need freedom is like asking why do we ask at all. What has happened already happened. We are conscious and we are conscious that we are conscious of this. There are other points in the philosophies of Slavoj Zizek and Niklas Luhmann that show their similarity in terms of reworking Hegelian problems with Hegelian solutions. But between the two, I can already see that Luhmann saw further than Zizek and I will try to bring this to light in my following notes. The “Elvis of cultural theory” can definitely entertain, but I leave the cleaning of tables to Luhmann.

Engels C. Del Rosario

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