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A Redescription of "Romantic Art"


Niklas L u h m a n n

A sociologist taking u p a theme like "romantic art" should endeavor to add nothing new to the subject matter itself. Faithfulness to the object is called foreven if only in the ordinary sense of "empirical." In what follows it is therefore not a matter of competing with literary or aesthetic inquiry or of offering new interpretations of Romantic texts or other contemporary works of art. Nor shall I intervene in the broad discussion bearing on the relationship of Romanticism, and above all early German Romanticism (Fruhroniantik), to modern society and its self-description as "modern"; 1 this discussion is too d e p e n d e n t on crude evaluations (for example, "irrationalism") and will necessarily remain controversial as long as the concept of modernity itself remains controversial. It is, then, not a question of hermeneutics, not a matter of 'knowing better' in the domain of the critical analysis of art; in fact it is not even, at least not directly, a question here of a more adequate understanding of key Romandc concepts such as poetry (Poesie), irony, arabesque, fragment, criticism. Such may emerge as a byproduct of our investigation. But disciplinary discourses operate in their own specific recursive networks, with their own intertextualities, their own selffabricated pasts, which, for instance, determine what one has to do in order to assume the standpoint of second-order observation and to remain intelligibleregardless of whether o n e continues the discursive tradition or suggests particular changes. And, as is well-known, it is dif-

See Karl Heinz Bohrer, Die Kritik derRomantik, Frankfurt 1989. MLN, 111 (1996): 506-522 1996 by The Johns Hopkins University Press



ficult (if not impossible, at least d e p e n d e n t on coincidences hard to foresee) to intervene in disciplines from the outside in the name of interdisciplinarity. 2 This should be emphasized in advance when, as here, it is a matter of redescribing with systems-theoretical instruments what h a p p e n e d when Romanticism discovered its own autonomy and realized and worked through what had already taken place historically, namely the social differentiation of a functional system specifically related to art. 3 There is a considerable literature bearing on this development, a literature that takes as its point of departure the notion that the specific character of Romanticism as well as subsequent reflections of art is conditioned by the reorganization of society along the lines of functional differentiation. 4 If Romanticism was m o d e r n and still is, then not because it preferred the "hovering" (das "Schwebendt") or the "irrational" or the "fantastic," but because it attempts to e n d u r e system autonomy. Up till now, however, there have not been any investigations that seek to make clear, at the level of abstraction of general systems theory, what is to be expected when functional systems are differentiated as self-referential, operationally closed systems. This process cannot be grasped according to the schemastill predominant at the time of Romanticismof part and whole. T h e same goes for general concepts of the advantageous division of labor or, negatively formulated, of the eternal conflict of apriori binding values; phrased in terms of proper names: the point holds for Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. For neither can one assume that an "organic" solidarity corresponding to the division of labor emerges on its own, nor is it justified to conceive of values as fixed points on the horizon of action orientation. Today entirely different theoretical instruments are available for a discussion of these foundational issues.

2 On these difficulties, but also on possible parallelisms among developments in the natural sciences, cybernetics, and literary studies, see the book by the English scholar trained in chemistry: N. Katherine Hayles, Chaos Bound: Orderly Disorder in Contemporary Literature and Science, Ithaca 1990, esp. p. 37. 3 The concept of "redescription" is here employed in the sense of Mary Hesse, Models and Analogies in Science, Notre Dame 1966, p. 157ff. O n e should, however, speak of "metaphorical redescription w only if one accepts that no theory can d o without metaphors and furthermore that the concept of metaphor is itself a metaphor that uses "metapherein" in a figural, extended, or translated sense. 4 See, for example, Siegfried J. Schmidt, Die Selbstorganisation des Sozialsystems Literatur im 18. Jahrhundert\ Frankfurt 1989; Niels Werber, Literatur als System: Zur Ausdifferenzierung literariscker Kommunikation, Opladen 1992. Cf. also Gerhard Plumpe, Asthetische Kommunikation der Moderne, Vol. I: Von Kant bis Hegel, Opladen 1993.



Important changes in the conceptual repertoire of systems theory result when one substitutes "essential definitions" (Wesensdefmitionen), but also so-called analytic system concepts, with the theoretical notion of the operative closure of systems. Essential definitions rested on a heteroreferential (fremdreferentiell) orientation, analytic definitions on a selfreferential orientation of the observer. The n o u o n of operative closure and, related to it, die theory of autopoietic systems presuppose that selfreferential systems must be observed. They are just that which they make out of themselves. An observation is therefore only then appropriate if it takes the self-reference of the system and, in the case of systems operating with meaning (sinnhafl operierend), (he self-observation of the system into account. The "paradigm shift" that is thereby accomplished displaces systems theory from the level of first-order observation (systems as objects) to the level of second-order observation (systems as subobjectsor obsubjects, to employ formulations o f j e a n Paul). 5 With this turn, the distinction between self-reference and heteroreference is relocated within the observed observing system. Not only the scientific observer must be able to distinguish between him/herself and others (that is, between concepts and objects); this verba/res distinction is valid for all observing systems, even when they are occupied with sense perceptions and have to rely on the external world without being able to distinguish between reality and illusion.''The generalization of the concept and the structural problems of observing systems has far-reaching consequences, which only became apparent through mathematical analyses. This detour via mathematics frees us at the same time from the mystifications previously attached to concepts such as "meaning" (Sinn) or "mind" (Geist). They enable us to sec today more clearly why and how something like "imagination" is required and in what sense construction/deconstruction/ reconstruction as an ongoing process, an ongoing displacement of distinctions (Derrida's differance), is necessary in order to dissolve paradoxes in and as lime.'
5 See Clavis h'ichteana seu Leibgeberiana, in Jean Paul, Werke, vol. 3, Munich 1961. pp. 1011-56, or Ftegetjahre, arte Biographie, in Werke, vol. 2, Munich 1959, pp. 567-1065, esp. 641. 6 This special condition of an unavoidable trust in the world that can only be disrupted through critical reflection holds, however, only for psychic systems. For this reason we can leave it out of consideration in what follows. 7 The parallels between deconstruction and second-order cybernetics are treated more thoroughly in: Niklas I.uhmann, "Deconstruction as Second Order Observing," New Literary History 24 (1993). pp. 763-82.



In what follows we rely on the calculus of f o r m developed by George Spencer Brown. 8 Similar considerations are to be found in the secondorder cybernetics which Heinz von Foerster has elaborated. 9 H e r e the consideration as to what happens when the output of a system is immediately reintroduced into the system (that is, when the system forms reflective loops within itself) leads to the concept of the non-trivial, and therefore unpredictable, machine. And here too the problem consists in the fact that the space of possibilities of the system is so greatly expanded through self-reference that neither internal nor external observations can predict the operations of the system. A further inference that can be drawn from these mathematical analyses: the system requires meaning in order to deal successfully (zurechtzukommen) with both itself and its world. 1 0 With reference to this problematic locus Spencer Brown employs the concept of the "re-entry" of a distinction into itself. 11 Here too it is a question of deploying possibilities of ordering that cannot be achieved through the normal operations of the arithmetic and algebra and can only be demonstrated as paradoxes. Spencer Brown's mode of presentation has the advantage of being directly applicable to a very formal concept of observation. Observation is, in this context, nothing other than the use of a distinction for the indication of one and not the other side of the distinction, however the system that performs this might be constituted. For this reason the analysis concludes by referring back to its beginning in the equation of observing and drawing a distinction: "We see now that the first distinction, the mark, and the observer are not only interchangeable, but, in the form, identical." 12 For the analysis of the Romantic, world, the consequences of such a re-entry are of central importance. If it can be accomplished (whether it is accomplished is then an empirical question), the system reaches a state of "unresolvable indeterminacy." 1 3 T h e decisive aspect of this
8 See George Spencer Brown, Laws o/F<ntn, New York 1979. Cf. also Dirk Baecker, ed., Kalkul der Form, Frankfurt 1993. 9 Heinz von Foerster, Observing Systems, Seaside, Cal. 1981. See also the German edition expanded with several additional contributions: Heinz von Foerster, Wissen und Geurissen. Versuch einer Briicke, Frankfurt 1993. 10 This presupposes, of course, a de-subjectification of the concept of meaning. For a thorough elaboration of this point see Niklas Luhmann, Souale Systeme: Grundrifi einer aUgemeinen Theorie, Frankfurt 1984, p. 92ff. " On this point and on what follows, see Spencer Brown, Laws of Form, 54ff., 69fT. 12 Ibid., p. 76. 13 Ibid., p. 57.



concept is that the indeterminacy is not explained with reference to d e p e n d e n c e on an overpowering, itself indeterminable environment, but rather is caused by the re-entry within the system itself. It is thus a matter of self-generated uncertainty with which the system in one way or another, but in any case selectively, must deal. In order to do this the system requires:
1. a memory function. Memory must be u n d e r s t o o d h e r e as the presentation of the p r e s e n t as the result of the past; or alternatively as the result of an o n g o i n g discrimination between forgetting a n d r e m e m b e r i n g . 1 4 T h e m e m o r y function is thus a necessary a c c o m p a n i m e n t to all operations of observing systems. It is by n o m e a n s a matter of the occasional calling u p of m e m o r i e s on the time-scale of the past (after the pattern: where did I p u t my glasses?). 2. an oscillator function. This can be i n t e r p r e t e d g o i n g beyond Spencer Brown as the correlate of the use of distinctions. With every deploym e n t of distinctions in observation the system will also observe (mitbeobachten) t h e possibility of crossing the b o r d e r of the distinction with a f u r t h e r o p e r a t i o n a n d thus moving f r o m o n e side to the o t h e r f o r example: f r o m the positive to the negative, f r o m the g o o d to the bad, from the allowed to the prohibited, f r o m the useful to the non-useful, from the p r o f a n e to the sacred, etc., f r o m the realistic to the fantastic and back again.

With the memory function the system binds itself to its own, now unalterable past. In this way it produces a present with a past horizon and motivates itself to proceed from the present state of the world rather than presupposing everything as new and unknown at every moment and thus always starting from the beginning. 1 5 For this reason there is no "originary" present, no present that would be its own origin. With the oscillator function the system holds its future openand not merely as the freedom of performing this or that action, but with regard to the fact that everything can arrive different; and this not arbitrarily, but depending on the distinction being used, which, because it
14 H e n c e of t h e freeing-up a n d t h e r e i m p r e g n a t i o n of the observational capacities of t h e system. T h i s according to Heinz Forster, Das Gedachtnis. Eine quantenmechanische Untersuchung; Vienna 1948. I his f o r m u l a t i o n , by the way, shows how identities e m e r g e , namely t h r o u g h c o n f i r m a t i o n (Rewahrung) in r e i m p r e g n a t i o n or, in t h e terms of S p e n c e r Brown {Laws of Form, p. 10), t h r o u g h c o n d e n s a t i o n a n d c o n f i r m a t i o n ; in any case, however, t h r o u g h the o n g o i n g e q u a t i o n (Abgieichung) with new irritations b u t not with fixed c o n t e n t s of t h e e n v i r o n m e n t . 15 In d o c t r i n e s of wisdom the o p p o s i t e r e q u i r e m e n t is occasionally stated: " T h e wise perceive every thing as new, in attentive observation if not at first glance." Baltasar Gracian, Criticon oder Ueber die aUgemeinen Laster des Menschen, H a m b u r g 1957, p. 15.



includes what it excludes, indicates what in any given case can be otherwise. This too does not require, but rather makes possible a chronometric ordering of future temporal positions. The difference between the simultaneously required memory and oscillator functions makes the construction of time necessary, the distinction of past and future and the insertion of a present between them in which alone the system can operate. Via temporal difference modaltheoretical paradoxes can be dissolved, for example the supramodal necessity of contingency that was once so important to theology. The necessary can now be seen as a consequence of its being past, the contingent as a feature of the future. With the distinction of past and future the system can, additionally, deal with the requirement that it simultaneously (!) generate and hold in store both redundancy and variety; the requisite redundancy will then be attributed to the past, the requisite variety to the future. And that still leaves the question open whether one conceives of the present as constant, as enduring, and time as flowing through it, or construes the present of the system as process, as a movement out of the past in the direction of the future. The system can think of itself as static and as the correlate to the eternity of God, for example as a soul which must endure its temporal existence; or as dynamic and with the necessity/impossibility of using the present in order to shape the future. This distinction can then be used to adapt the temporal structures to socio-cultural configurations. In any case, however, the constructivist analysis compels one to conclude that every present is furnished with past and future horizons and for that reason that the future can never become present. 16 The temporal horizons only shift with, indeed by virtue of, the operations of the system so that from moment to moment new pasts and futures are being selected. Reformulated in terms of the theory of games, what follows from this analysis is that the game can only be played within the game and only with distinctions that identify the individual operations and simultaneously the play itself.17 That's why Adam (in Paradise Lost) had to have the world explained to him by the archangel Raphael; and that's why Henry Adams can only describe his education as the play of an indeterminate I against an indeterminate world. 18
16 On this point see Nildas Luhmann, "The Future Cannot Begin: Temporal Structures in Modern Society," Social Research 43 (1976), pp. 130-52. 17 For several mathematical variants of this theme, cf. l-ouis H. Kauffman, "Ways of the GamePiav and Position Play," Cybernetics and Human Knowing2/3 (1994), pp. 1734. 18 Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, New York 1918.



III In certain respects, mathematical theories have today overtaken what in the so-called h u m a n sciences (Geisteswissenschaften), b u t in sociology as well, h a d always b e e n intuited a n d expressed t h r o u g h a rather ambiguous use of language. This is t r u e above all for chaos theory. 1 9 It is also true of the catastrophe theory of Rene Thorn a n d of the postGodelian calculus of forms of Spencer Brown discussed above. Of course, it is n o t to b e expected that Romanticism anticipated and m o r e or less intuitively took such a d e v e l o p m e n t of formal theory programs into consideration. However, a close examination of the texts of Romanticism can disclose so many c o r r e s p o n d e n c e s that it becomes unavoidable to ask how they can be explained. An overhasty conclusion would be to say that Romanticism is nothing o t h e r than the poetic paraphrase of a mathematical problem, a poetic version of mathematics. We shall leave that view aside and instead make our way via a sociological theory that can sustain empirical verification. This intention was already alluded to above. Its point of departure is the notion that the functional differentiation of m o d e r n society can be conceived in terms of autonomous, operatively closed, autopoietic functional systems. T h a t leads to the hypothesis that all functional systems draw limits or borders and therefore must reproduce the difference between inside and outside internally as the difference self-reference/ hetero-reference. T h e transition f r o m hierarchically fixed positional orders describable as nature to the primacy of the distinction between self- a n d hetero-reference is considered a characteristic, if not the decisive feature of Romantic literature 2 0 (and, o n e can add, Romantic art in general). T h a t encourages us to be on the lookout for the above described consequences of re-entry. For in the final analysis the distinction between self- a n d hetero-reference is nothing o t h e r than the re-entry of the distinction system/environment into the system itself.

IV With the differentiation of the art system a n d its disconnection from external compulsions, an excess of communicative possibilities
19 On this point see Hayles, Chaos Bound (note 2). On the discussions set into motion by the theory of thermodynamics, see Kenneth D. Bailey, Sociology and the New Systems Theory, New York 1994. 20 Seeesp. Earl R. Wasserman, The Subtler Language. Critical Readings of Neoclassical and Romantic Poems, Baltimore 1959.



e m e r g e s internally a n d m u s t b e internally c o n t r o l l e d a n d b r o u g h t i n t o f o r m . 2 1 T h e r e l a t i o n s h i p of r e d u n d a n c y a n d variety, which f o r a l o n g time h a d a c c o m p a n i e d t h e d e s c r i p t i o n of a r t , 2 2 shifts in t h e d i r e c t i o n of a f l o o d of variational possibilities t h a t can h a r d l y any l o n g e r b e mast e r e d . 2 3 T h e " m a r v e l o u s " is n o t an i n v e n t i o n of R o m a n t i c i s m , b u t of t h e Cinquecento;24 b u t w h e n its d i f f e r e n t i a t i o n is fully a c c o m p l i s h e d , a r t can m o r e forcefully d i s t a n c e itself f r o m a pre-given reality. 2 5 M o r e a n d m o r e , art m u s t g e n e r a t e the r e q u i s i t e r e d u n d a n c i e s itself, a n d this t h r o u g h t h e restriction of variety. Today o n e would s p e a k of "selfo r g a n i z a t i o n . " For this reason, R o m a n t i c i s m discovers itself as if new b o r n in an e m p t y space a n d called o n to give itself its o w n m e a n i n g . H o w that s s u p p o s e d to h a p p e n b e c o m e s a q u e s t i o n in t e r m s of which o n e can g a t h e r t o g e t h e r diverse t h e m e s of R o m a n t i c l i t e r a t u r e . For e x a m p l e , t h e call f o r a new mythology.26 W i t h a f o r m u l a t i o n c o i n e d to d e s c r i b e p o s t m o d e r n a r c h i t e c t u r e b u t entirely a p p l i c a b l e to R o m a n t i c i s m , o n e c o u l d say: " W h e r e a s m y t h o l o g y was given t o t h e artist by t r a d i t i o n a n d by p a t r o n , in t h e p o s t m o d e r n world it is c h o s e n a n d i n v e n t e d . " 2 7 T h a t can h a p p e n in an entirely "sentimentalist" fashion by d r a w i n g o n antiquity a n d Christianity, t h r o u g h b o r r o w i n g s t h a t reflect o n the fact t h a t they f o r m t h e i r o b s e r v a t i o n s f r o m a d i f f e r e n t

21 On this See Peter Fuchs, Modern* Kommunikalion: 7,ur Theorie des operaliven DisplacementX Frankfurt 1993, p. 79ff. 22 For example, for the Renaissance in the twin concepts unita/mollitudine or, distinguished from these, verisimile/meraviglioso. For a representative example, see Torquato Tasso, Discorsi delVartepoetica e in particulare sopra ilpoema eroica (1587), in: Prose, Milano 1969, where (p. 366) it is stated that the poet should rely more on the one than the other ( u o piu del verisimile o piu del mirabile") in order to produce "magior diletto." The sphere of the "marvelous," however, is limited by the fact that means have to be found "per accoppiare il meraviglioso co'l verisimile." (p. 367) Beyond this example, one could of course recall such ancient cosmological distinctions as ordo/varielas or unitas/diversilas. 23 At the same time, biology reorients its inquiries from pre-given essential characteristics to "irritability" as that characteristic which enables the evolution of living beings. Seejean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet de Lamarck, Philosophie zoologique, Paris 1809, reprint Weinheim 1960, esp. vol. I, p. 82ff. 24 Cf. Baxter Hathaway, Marvels and Commonplaces: Renaissance Literary Criticism, New York 1968. 25 Of course, that doesn't mean that art can indicate the one-way traffic on Fifth Avenue incorrectly or claim that Carthage defeated Rome. In this, Tasso is still right (Discorsi, p. 367), but today that's no longer the problem. 26 For example, in the sense of the "alteste System program m des deutschen Idealismus," here cited from G. W. F. Hegel, Werke, vol. I, Frankfurt 1971, pp. 234-36, or in the sense of Friedrich Schlegel. 27 CharlesJencks, "Postmodern vs. Late-Modern," in Ingeborg Hoesterey, ed., Zeitgeist in Babel: The Postmodernist Controi>ersy, Bloomington 1991, pp. 9-21; here, p. 9.



temporal position. In contradistinction to the Renaissance, the great discovery of which was that t h e r e h a d o n c e b e e n perfection in this world, the directive difference n o longer lies in the distinction between secular a n d theological descriptions, but in the temporal difference between present a n d p a s t O r s e c o n d examplethe accentuation of writing as a form in which absences (author or c o n t e n t ) can appear as present. 2 8 "Die Schrift hat f u r mich," Friedrich Schlegel confesses, "ich weiB nicht welchen g e h e i m e n Zauber, vielleicht d u r c h die D a m m e r u n g von Ewigkeit, welche sie umschwebt." 2 9 In Ludwig Tieck's 'William Lovely the characters reveal themselves a n d their opinions only t h r o u g h writing. What's Romantic in this is n o t the presentational form of the epistolary novel, b u t rather the fact that an image of "voriiberfliegenden G e f u h l e n , die mit unserer V e r n u n f t (nicht) in eins zu schmelzen (sind)," 3 0 is fixed in writing. And when that which has been supposedly written down is published, the reader can dissolve the narrative a n d accept as h i s / h e r own o n e of the possible points of view. Writing evidently compensates for the displacement of an e n d u r i n g present with process, since it can be reused in the present, but also read differently. It fixes itself, as it were, but not the reader. A n d above allthird examplecriticism (Kritik), conceived as the o n g o i n g labor in reflection o n the never-complete artwork. Romanticism, then, seeks f o r m s with which it can r e s p o n d to the necessity/ impossibility of transcending the limits of the imagination. T h e expressive devices on the literary p l a n e that c o r r e s p o n d to this are irony a n d the f r a g m e n t , in music the p r e f e r e n c e for the p i a n o with its context- a n d c o n t i n u a t i o n - d e p e n d e n t tonal qualities. T h e u n a m b i g u o u s distinctions are n o longer sufficient, every f r a m e of observation refers to a f u r t h e r f r a m e of observation, which it confirms by realizing itself in it. 31 Systemic autonomy, to which Romanticism in this way endeavors to respond, is just what h a p p e n e d to the art system as a result of the functional differentiation of society. O n e can n o longer expect instruction

Here too the parallel to postmodernism, in this case to Dcrrida, is astonishing. "Uber Philosophic," in Friedrich Schlegel. Werke, Berlin 1980, vol. II, pp. 101-29; here, p. 104. 30 Ludwig Ticck, Friihe Erzahlungen und Rom/me, Munich 1963, p. 378. 31 In this regard also the correspondences to postmodernism are not accidental. See David Roberts, Art and Enlightenment: Aesthetic Theory after Adomo, Lincoln, Neb. 1991; "Die Paradoxic der Form in der Literatur," in Dirk Baecker, cd., Probleme derForm, Frankfurt 1993, pp. 22-44.




from the religious system, the political or economic systems, nor from the households of the most important families as to how artworks are to be made. For this reason one could almost say: autonomy becomes the destiny which is interpreted as a defence against external intervention; or the invisible cage in which the artist is forced to select, to be original and free. Romanticism thus views and deals with the problem of autonomy on the level of the artwork and the creative freedom of the artist derived from it, but not on the social level of the functional system of art; for only in this way can Romanticism define its position. T h e social system of art lets itself be represented through the idea of art. All that reads like a commentary on the self-generated "unresolvable indeterminacy" that is unavoidable as soon as one reintroduces the difference between system and environment within the system itself. And just as in mathematics imaginary numbers or imaginary spaces are required in order to absorb paradoxes, 3 2 Romanticism condenses the imaginary to the fantastic, and thereby to forms that precisely do not mean what they show, but are nothing other than materialized irony. 33 But that by no means implies that all forms dissolve, that no distinction any longer holds, that everything becomes arbitrary. On the other hand, it does not suffice to postulate with Kant that freedom is given for its rational use or that the genius must make a disciplined a n d cautious use of his geniality. 34 Rather, the artwork receives the task of demonstrating its own contingency and being its own program; and that makes very severe demands on both productive and receptive observation, which therefore cannot happen "just any way." Self-generated indeterminacy does not by any means imply that n o meaningful operations, no determinations are possible; merely that determinations must be recognizable as self-determinations and as such observable. In other words, communication must be transferred to the level of second-order observation. Against this background the reason that the Romantics begin to play

32 See Spencer Brown, Laws ofForm, p. 58ff, where a tunnel is introduced beneath the surface on which the system performs its acceptable calculations. Cf. Dirk Baecker, "Im Tunnel," in Dirk Baecker, ed., Probleme der Form, pp. 14-37. 33 On the further development of this tendencywith ever new outraged opponentsup to surrealism, see Bohrer, Die Kritik der Romantik, p. 39ff. 34 This is, by the way, a longstanding, pre-romantic idea. O n e encounters it in the distinction libertas/licentia of natural law theory or in the disegno doctrine of the cinquecento with its distinction between creative imagination and the skilled and practiced execution of a drawing.



with "reality," d o u b l i n g identities in the form of Doppelganger, twins, exc h a n g e d names, a n d m i r r o r images, becomes intelligible: in o r d e r to show that the same can also be otherwise a n d must be set into relation with itself. Instead of the ontological guiding d i f f e r e n c e (Leitunterscheidung) between being a n d non-beingwhich on the side of being congeals to substance so that in the reapplication of the distinction to itself the side of being is c o n f i r m e d o t h e r guiding distinctions appear, for example, the distinction finite/infinite (determinate/ i n d e t e r m i n a t e ) or, alternatively, inside a n d outside. 3 5 Ontological metaphysics, which took only o n e possible primary distinction as its point of d e p a r t u r e , now had to be o u t t r u m p e d by a meta-metaphysics, which could take shape with the typically Kantian question regarding conditions of possibility. T h e localization of reality with respect to the distinction inside/outside was then as now a hardly solvable problem: 3 6 "1st das Reale auBer uns: so sind wir ewig geschieden davon; ist es in uns: so sind wirs selber." 3 7 However, because n o adequate, sufficiently rich, many-valued logic is available, the problem is displaced o n t o aesthetics. Translated into constructivist terminology, that m e a n s that the decision as to what can be treated as reality a n d what not is m a d e internal to t h e system. T h e reality test of "resistance" d o e s n ' t have to be given u p as a result, b u t it is n o longer a matter of a resistance of the e n v i r o n m e n t to the system, rather of system o p e r a t i o n s to system operations within the same systemabove all the resistance of the selfp r o d u c e d m e m o r y against new impulses or o c c u r e n t ideas, or the resistance of the already begun artwork or narrative against something which can n o longer b e a d d e d to it. Viewed in this way, reality is nothing m o r e than t h e correlate of consistency tests within the system, and this can occur in such a way that magic, ghosts, the supernatural, etc. are introduced into a tale so as to acquire narrative plausibility, which can then be revoked within the tale itself when, at the e n d , a perfectly natural explanation for all the strangeness is provided. 3 ** T h e figure of the Doppelganger thus m e a n s n o t h i n g m o r e than that in reality there is

35 On the plurality of such "primary distinctions," see Philip G. Herbst, Alternatives to Hierarchies, Leiden 1976, p. 88. Hcrbst's work is, by the way, quite probably the earliest sociological response to Spencer Brown. 36 On the contemporary version of the problem, see N. Katherine Hayles, "Constrained Constructivism: Locating Scientific Inquiry in the Theater of Representation," in George Levine, ed., Realism and Representation: Essays on the Problem of Realism in Relation to Science, Literature, and Culture, Madison, Wise. 1993, pp. 27-43. 37 Jean Paul, Vorschule der Asthetik, in Werke, vol. 5, Munich 1963, p. 7-514 (445). 38 This is a well-known narrative technique of Ludwig Ticck's, from William Lovell to Das '/Muberschlofi.



no assymmetry of original and copy; rather, that this is a distinction art alone requires for itself, an entry o n the cost side in the balance of its autonomyAll this can be handled with the de-reification (Entdinglichung) of the concept of world introduced already by Kant. World is no longer a totality of things, an aggregatio corpororum, a universitas rerum, but rather the final, and therewith unobservable, condition of possibility of observations, that is of every sort of use of distinctions. To formulate this another way, the world must be invisiblized so that observations become possible. For every observation requires a "blind spot," 39 or more precisely: it can only indicate o n e side of the distinction being used, employing it as a starting point for subsequent observations, but not the distinction itself as a unity and above all not the "unmarked space," precisely the world from which every distinction, as soon as it is marked as a distinction, must be delimited. This invisibilization of the nevertheless doubtlessly given and presupposed world had dramatic consequences for Kant, Fichte, and above all for the Romantics. It leads to an overburdening of the individual with expectations regarding the production of meaning and therewith to the collapse of the communication weighed down with such expectations. T h e individual endowed with reflection now receives the title of "subject." But the higher and more complex the expectations that subjects direct toward themselves and their others, the greater is the probablity of a failure of their communications. Texts exemplary of this are Jean Paul's Siebenkas (the marriage scenes) and his Flegeljahre.'10 The forcing of subjectivity as the single answer to the problem of world makes intersubjectivity difficult, indeed, if one is conceptually rigorous, actually impossible. Today this necessarily leads to the question whether the "human being," the "subject," or similar collective singulars are a possible starting point for social theory at all. T h e Romantics used them and couldn't give the matter a second thought, for they had in any case no chance to develop an adequate theory of society. For them this position was occupied by the concept of "spirit" (Geist) and by the French Revolution.

39 On this point, see Heinz von Foerster, "Das Gleichnis vom blindcn Fleck," in Gerhard Johann Lischka, ed., Der entfesselte Blick: Symposium, Workshops, AussteUung, Bern 1992, pp. 15-47. 40 See also Ludwig Tieck, William Lovell, p. 603: "Es ist ein Fluch, der auf der Sprache des Menschen liegt, daB keiner den anderen verstehen kann." Gf. also p. 383 (Balder's letter to William Lovell).



V Nearly c o n t e m p o r a n e o u s with Romanticism a new sort of concept of "culture" (Kultur) arises, offering itself as a serviceable "memory function" for m o d e r n society. O n e can see this with respect to the Romantics, but also o t h e r "humanistic" (geisteswissenschaftlich) endeavors, including religion (Schleiermacher) a n d philosophy (the late work of Husserl). From the middle of the eighteenth century, the term "cult u r e " is employed as an i n d e p e n d e n t expression, that is: it is n o longer related to the care of s o m e t h i n g else as in "agriculture" or "cultura animi" (Cicero). Formally, culture is distinguished f r o m nature, b u t that is merely a n external delimitation a n d says n o t h i n g about the contents that are seen as cultural a n d , as such, approved or disapproved. H e r e too o n e must distinguish between t h e m e s a n d functions: the t h e m e s of culture a n d its f u n c t i o n with regard to the autopoiesis of a highly complex societal system. T h e themes of culture are formulated with reference to possible comparisons, in particular regional (at first national) a n d historical comparisons. Historically, such comparisons can in principle reach back indefinitely, as far as the "sources" that are always being discovered allow. With respect to content, cultures are related to ideas (Idem) or values, for which an "apriori" validity, or at least a fixed orientation, is p r e s u p p o s e d well into the twentieth century. Following the s c h e m a laid down in the Kantian critiques or by some o t h e r m e t h o d , a plurality of validity types can then be posited, the unity of which either remains unreflected or is described as a tragic conflict (Weber) or as endless discourse ( H a b e r m a s ) . 4 1 Ideas, values, validity claims of all sorts e m e r g e as correlates or, as it were, as secretions of the comparative construction of culture. In this way o n e endeavors to retransform contingency into necessity, with the result, however, that contingency reappears in daily practicebe it as the merely a p p r o x i m a t e realization of ideas, b e it as the ever renewed necessity of deciding in cases of value conflict. This problematic occupies the thematic horizon of m o d e r n society, but still doesn't show wherein the persuasive force of the comparative m e t h o d consists. It seems to b e r o o t e d in the fact that extremely diverse states of affairs can nevertheless be c o m p a r e d , in the conspicuousness value of the equality of the diverse, which is to say: in the successful solution of a paradox. What is similar fascinates and, so to speak, proves itself by
41 One can speculate that Kant's Kritik der Urteilskra/t aimed at such an integration, hut failed to provide it.



virtue of the fact that it is f o u n d unexpectedly. This is called "wit" (Witz) and is f o u n d "interesting." 4 2 O n e can show that the same is different and that diverse things allow identities to be known so long as one directs the comparison in terms of this cognitive interest. But why should o n e d o that? For the reason that it is a cognitive strategy that makes it possible to deal with extraordinarily complex, in the final analysis worldsocietal states of affairs. T h e semantics of the society is keyed to its structural complexity and o n e c o m p o n e n t of this is that talk of ideas and values provides a surface description that prevents inquiry f r o m reaching the paradox of the equivalence of the different a n d thus from developing modes of description sufficiently complex to grasp the complexity of the society. O n e could speak in this connection of a cultural symptomology. 4 3 T h e t h e m e s of culture have a symptomatic function. They do n o t merely m e a n themselves, b u t also something else; a n d that becomes especially noticeable when they are formulated as unconditional, transcendental, or absolute, and are introduced into the communicative process with precisely this import. T h u s there arises in the course of the n i n e t e e n t h century a second culture, a culture of suspicion that raises the question of what is being disguised by the themes of culture. I am referring, of course, to Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and the sociology of knowledge that follows in their path. Poking a r o u n d in allegedly latent structures is a way of searching out hidden interests. T h e appropriate response to such searching is a tu cfuoqueargument, namely the question as to the interest b e h i n d this interest in latency. T h e suspicion of veiled motives becomes universal and t h e r e f o r e trivial; it is then a matter of n o t h i n g o t h e r than a double description of reality with first- and second-order observation. T h e considerations set forth in the previous sections allow for a reformulation of the question as to the function of cultural themes. Society requires a m e m o r y function that allows it to accept the present as the result of the past and as the starting point for subsequent operations. A memory, however, does not merely hold past events in reserve; it accomplishes above all a continuous discrimination of forgetting a n d remembering. Most everything sinks away and very little is so c o n d e n s e d and reconfirmed that it can be reused. This sortal

42 For the subsequent development of this configuration, see Karl Heinz Bohrer, Plotzlichkeit: Zum Augenblick des dsthetischen Scheins, Frankfurt 1981. 43 This is the formulation of Matei Calinescu, "From the One to the Many: Pluralism in Today's Thought," in Hoesterey, ed., Postmodernist Controversy, pp. 156-74; here, 157.



function serves the o n g o i n g adaptation of the system to that which it can construct as repetition. However, as a sortal function it must remain latent because otherwise it would also r e m e m b e r what is forgotten. T h e m e m o r y must, to put the matter differently, accomplish a reentry of the d i f f e r e n c e between forgetting a n d r e m e m b e r i n g within forgetting, a n d the f o r m in which this occurs seems to be the construction of themesof identities and generalizations that can be fixed in communicatively available designations. 4 4 T h e m e s , in o t h e r words, make possible a forgetting of forgetting, a n d at the same time the way in which t h e m e s are constructed serves the ongoing adaptation of the system to itself, the c o n t i n u i n g inscription of a consistent "reality." To r e t u r n to Romanticism after this long digression: o n e can assume that this systems-theoretical concept will contribute to a socio-historical u n d e r s t a n d i n g of Romanticism. With a peculiar p r e f e r e n c e for transitional tones, for paradoxes, for the narratively p r o d u c e d believability of the unbelievable, for the cognition of what cannot be communicated, the Romantics cultivate a symptomology that avoids congealing to theses, which could then be accepted o r rejected. T h e previously binding, early E u r o p e a n tradition has to be forgotten in o r d e r to free u p new capacities, a n d then restaged in a timely form (zeitgemafi) with a nostalgia that reflects on itself. In Romantic poetry a n d criticism ideas are evoked a n d simultaneously marked as unreachable. T h e t e m p o r a l conceptions of the Romantics also fit with this analysis. Time is still p r e s u p p o s e d as a m o v e m e n t in the old sense and therewith related implicitly to t h e cognitive possibilities of conscious perception. But t h e present is experienced as precarious, as a caesura, as the "Differential d e r Funktion d e r Z u k u n f t u n d Vergangenheit." 4 5 T h e ambivalence in the evaluation of the French Revolution provides

44 "Themes"the reference, of course, is to communicating and therefore social systems. For perceptual (psychic) systems one would have to speak of "objects." 45 Novalis, Werke, ed. Ewald Wasmuth, Heidelberg 1957, vol. I, p. 129 (fragment 417). Cf. fragment 2225 (vol. II, p. 125): "Alle Erinnerung ist Gegenwart. Im reinen Element wird alle Erinnerung uns wie notwendige Verdichtungerscheinen." Or Bluthenstaub 109: "Die gewohnliche Gegenwart verknupft Vergangenheit und Zukunft durch Beschrankung. Es entsteht Kontiguitat, durch Erstarrung, Krystallisation. Es gibt aber eine geistige Gegenwart, die Ixryde durch Auflosung identifiziert." Werke, Tagebiicherund BriefeFriedrich von Hardenbergs, ed. Hansjoachim Mahl and Richard Samuel, Darmstadt 1978, vol. 2, p. 283. Cf. also Jean Paul, Titan, in Werke, ed. Norbert Miller, Munich 1969, vol. II, p. 478: "Nein, wir haben keine Gegenwart, die Vergangenheit muB ohne sie die Zukunft gebaren."



a political illustration of the same tendency. And that seems to suffice as a symptom of the insecurity of the Zeitgeist. One does not find the way to an adequate theory of time although the idea of a three-phase passage from the past through the present to the future has already been refuted by the experience of the precarious character of the present, by its de-ontologization. 4 6 T h e present is valued precisely because of its undecidablitv (but wouldn't o n e then have to say: because of the necessity of deciding?) and is projected onto the historical m o m e n t of European society. T h e past loses itself in history. One can forget or remember it 47 ; one has to prophesize it, as Friedrich Schlegel claims. 48 And the future becomes the best guarantee for the fact that the world is indescribable, and will remain so. Despite this historicization and, if one can put it this way, rendering precarious of temporal conceptuality, however, the Romantics do not entirely succeed in detaching the concept of time from the premises of ontological metaphysics. Their concept of the world is too strongly oriented in terms of the human being for that. In contradistinction to many animals, 4 9 for humans a thing remains identical to itself when it shifts from rest to movement. And that suggests an ontologically nested concept of time, oriented in terms of the p h e n o m e n o n of movement, a concept that presupposes identities that bridge the distinction movement/non-movement and can sustain not merely movement but also the change from non-movement to movement and vice versa, that is, the "crossing" of this distinguishing limit. Even Heidegger will still have difficulty with this. From the perspective of a radical constructivist theory of observation, however, identity is not a timeindependent given, but merely an instrument for binding time when it is a question of mediating past and future in the present. Science, including systems theory, cannot afford such cultivated undecidabilities in the temporal, material, and social dimensions. It must aim for refutable theses. That does not, however, exclude attempts to
40 On this point, sec Ingrid Oestcrle, a Der 'Fuhrungswechsel der Zeithorizonte' in der deutschen Literatur," in Dirk Grathoff, ed., Studien zurAsthetik und Literaturgeschichte der Kunstperiode, Frankfurt 1985, pp. 11-75. 47 A concept of memory based in quantum physics that fits this state of affairs can be found in Heinz von Foerster, "Was ist Gedachtnis, daB es Ruckschau und Vorschau ermoglicht?" in Wissen und Gewissen, pp. 299-336. See also by the same author, Das Gedachtnis (note 14). 48 Werke (n. 29), vol. I, p. 199. 49 For example, frogs. See J. Y. Lettvin, H. R. Maturana, W. S. McCulloch, and Wr. H. Pitts, "What the Frog's Eye Tells the Frog's Brain," Proceedings of the Institute of Radio Engineers47 (1959), pp. 1940-59.



d o justice to Romanticism in a theoretical redescription. T h e systemstheoretical i n s t r u m e n t s of description break with the semantic repertoire in terms of which Romanticism sought to u n d e r s t a n d itself. For the actual aim of this redescription is a theory of m o d e r n society for which Romanticism can only havebut this in a most revealing way symptomatic value.
University of Bielefeld