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Luhmann, Foucault, and Analytics of Power Christian Borch
Department of Sociology, University of Copenhagen, Denmark abstract: Niklas Luhmann’s theory of power is based on two fundamental pillars. First, he analyzes power functionally as a symbolically generalized medium of communication, which endows his conception of power with a strong evolutionary foundation. Second, he claims that power is constitutively tied to negative sanctions. Drawing upon Michel Foucault’s analytics of power, the article is a critical examination of Luhmann’s theory of power. In particular, Foucault’s critique of the so-called discourse of sovereignty is transformed into an immanent critique of the second pillar in Luhmann’s theory of power. The argument is that this pillar is converse to Luhmann’s evolutionary theoretical objectives, as it reinstalls an OldEuropean semantics of power. The article contends that systems theory would better redeem its historical goals if it focused primarily upon the functional dimension of power. It is argued that this conceptual revision endows systems theory with a more ﬂexible perspective on power that is both attentive to historical transformations of how power is exercised, and which still carries a strong link to a general theory of society and its evolution. In the article, this openness is demonstrated through a systemic reconstruction of Foucault’s notion of subjectiﬁcation which, in its Luhmannian version, is coined semantic intrusion. keywords: communication ◆ evolution ◆ functional analysis ◆ government ◆ media ◆ sanctions ◆ subjectiﬁcation
The reception of Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory has mainly pivoted around the implications of the many conceptual innovations that are closely tied to his sociology, e.g. autopoiesis, self-reference, operational closure, etc. Only rarely, however, has Luhmann’s theory of power been scrutinized, although he did publish one book and several articles and chapters on the subject (a few exceptions include Brodocz, 1998; Esposito, 1999; Sand, 2000; Guzzini, 2004). In this article, I propose a critical examination of Luhmann’s theory of power, in particular of what I take to be its two fundamental pillars. The critical dimension is based on Michel Foucault’s analytics of power.1 Basing a critique of Luhmann on Foucault may be surprising at first glance, as Foucault’s deliberately non-sociological genealogies of concrete historical phenomena are indeed quite different from Luhmann’s general and very abstractly formulated sociology. Yet their similar epistemological–analytical perspectives – on difference rather than identity, on second-order observation rather than positivism, on communication rather than subjects – place the two approaches close to one another and suggest that, despite apparent differences, Luhmann and Foucault may be confronted productively with each other. In this article, no extensive comparison of Foucault and Luhmann is offered. The aim is more modestly to show that Foucauldian insights on power may generate an
Acta Sociologica ◆ June 2005 ◆ Vol 48(2): 155–167 ◆ DOI: 10.1177/0001699305053769 Copyright © 2005 Scandinavian Sociological Association and SAGE (London, Thousand Oaks, CA and New Delhi) www.sagepublications.com
1969. 3). . I proceed by illustrating how this functional view on power would enable systems theory to incorporate one of the crucial dimensions of Foucault’s analytics of power. and more in line with Luhmann’s general critique of causal explanations. Luhmann sees power as being constitutively tied to negative sanctions (section III). I outline those conceptions of power that Luhmann and Foucault dissociate themselves from and against which their own positions are formulated.Acta Sociologica 48(2) immanent critique of systems theory. every effect has an inﬁnite number of causes just as every cause produces an inﬁnite number of effects (Luhmann. Rather. in the present reconstruction. he says. reﬂecting a basically pre-modern social structure. “A has power over B”. to point to tensions in Luhmann’s conception of power – especially in regard to the problem with negative sanctions – and to show how systems theory may come closer to its own objectives by dealing with these tensions. is critical of the so-called discourse of sovereignty where power is understood negatively. via Foucault. Contrary to what this might suggest. Thus. an examination of the causes of power does not tell us where power originates (Luhmann. which. The constructive contribution of the article thus aims at providing systems theory’s unique way of conceptualizing power within a general theory of society (which is not to be found in Foucault) with greater diagnostic and analytical powers that are more attentive to possible historical transformations in the exercise of power. Common starting-points Luhmann’s analysis of power takes off from a critique of what he calls ‘classical theory of power’. on his side. “A’s behavior causes B’s behavior”’ (Luhmann. I then discuss the positive content of Luhmann’s theory of power. It is therefore suggested that systems theory should downplay the a priori importance it attributes to sanctions. is presented as a matter of semantic intrusion. Luhmann is critical of this causal framework. the aim of the article is not to subsume systems theory under Foucault’s analytics of power. n. what must be overcome is a causal notion of power. I. After this negative positioning. 1970a: 156 . and to suggest how systems theory may cope with this. we can substitute the assertion. 1998). above all the two pillars on which it is based. In the ﬁrst section. tying power to negative sanctions runs contrary to the evolutionary objectives of Luhmann’s theory. Foucault. It is precisely towards this latter pillar that a Foucauldian critique may be directed. Simon. Foucault would argue that accepting the negative conception of power tends to endow power with a pre-modern bias and to ignore its possible historical transformations. for the assertion. Luhmann cites the following claim by Herbert A. and instead focus on the functional–medial deﬁnition of power – a deﬁnition that is more openly formulated in regard to what forms the exercise of power may take. and which he believes to be inadequate for contemporary power analysis. 1969: 150. On the one hand. the intention is. ‘. In section IV. On the other hand. subjectiﬁcation. According to Luhmann. Brodocz. Luhmann conceptualizes power functionally as a symbolically generalized medium of communication (section II). The central implication – not only in Simon. . The most important common trait of theories within this category is their reliance on a number of problematic assumptions about causality. 1969: 150). As one of the most prominent examples of how power and causality are conceptualized in classical power theory. but in the entire classical theory of power – is that power is conceived as the decisive event that makes the power subordinate act the way s/he does and that s/he would have acted differently had s/he not been subject to the exercise of power (Luhmann. This medial notion of power is conceived within a theory of societal evolution according to which the exercise of power is one among several functionally equivalent means of coping with increasing societal complexity. The article is divided into four sections. Consequently. First.2 Second.
an observerdependent ascription or attribution that could have been different.Borch: Systemic Power 16). is not ‘a “cause” of the action. According to Foucault. that a simple reference to the possession of power. we may reflect for a moment on Foucault’s analytics of power. at least. the discourse of sovereignty relies on the contention that power serves purposes of repression. Luhmann criticizes the classical theory for imaging power as a substance that can be possessed (1969: 158–9). (Foucault. Is it possible causally to preclude that the subordinate would not have acted the way s/he did under all circumstances or. the question of whether one can envisage the exercise of power as being decisive for the subordinate’s actual actions. when focusing on the present. exchanged. for example. i. 1978: 123). but an attribution. Power. The point of attribution is illustrated by a third problem. Finally. a contingent enterprise. increasing bureaucratic power is said to take place only with a corresponding loss of parliamentary power. which simultaneously implies an idea of power as a zero-sum game. First. that there were no other reasons for his/her action than the exercise of power? Finally. 1979: 179–82). 1997: 99. According to Foucault. This is particularly apparent in the importance attributed to prohibitions and law so that power. Indeed. the causal thinking of classical power theory must be abandoned. cf. . Thomas Lemke has identified three main assumptions in this image of power (Lemke. . the monarch or the state apparatus. thus. The determination of a causal relation is. Luhmann refuses to seek speciﬁc intentions or motives behind the exercise of power. as Luhmann demonstrates. this discourse of sovereignty emerged in a specific historical context: Through the development of the monarchy and its institutions this juridico-political dimension was established. The problem is. as it deals with problems that are strikingly similar to those of Luhmann. 1990: 87–8) 157 . organizational power increases simultaneously among both superiors and subordinates when their internal relations intensify (Luhmann. Motivation. a time issue is at stake: ‘The classical theory of power . To exercise power is to limit freedom (a reiteration of the zero-sum supposition). he says. Power is conceptualized as a substance that can be possessed. is concentrated in a center or ‘headquarter’. also Foucault. In the same vein. non-causal route into the power question. Before proceeding with Luhmann’s alternative. which makes possible the socially comprehensible experience of action’ (1979: 120). It is by no means adequate to describe the manner in which power was and is exercised. Furthermore.. etc. However. still according to the juridico-political model. objective and already ﬁxed projection of the past. it assumes that the exercise of power is a zero-sum game where. 1969: 151–2). from which it flows (causally and top-down) to the rest of society. The history of the monarchy went hand in hand with the covering up of the facts and procedures of power by the juridico-political discourse. typically political power. Second. he points to an assertion of possession. what needs to be overcome is the discourse of sovereignty or the juridico-political conception of power. he states. where power is transferred from one person to another and from one situation to another. Luhmann questions this assumption and argues that an adequate theory of power must be able to take into account that power often increases one place without leading to a parallel loss elsewhere. altogether conceals the systemic conditions of such a modality of power. 1969: 163. there is an assumption of location. implies a conception of time in which the future is seen as a determined. 1990: 94–6). but it is the code according to which power presents itself and prescribes that we conceive of it. is essentially in opposition to freedom.e. Additionally. before examining how he replaces the classical theory of power with a systemic notion of power. as Luhmann does. since ‘actual entities in the contemporary universe are causally independent of each other’ (Whitehead. it is at any rate a future poor in alternatives’ (Luhmann.3 This is particularly apparent regarding the subordinate whose future actions are presumed to be pre-determinable before power is exercised.
Instead. he endorses ‘Nietzsche’s hypothesis’ (Foucault. supply Foucault’s claim with a sociological line of reasoning. In the present context. Consequently. Or. This whole conceptual development ﬁnally ends with the notion of government. This characterization suggests the need for replacing notions of power that reinstall a conception of a hierarchically differentiated society. Power is no cause of behavior but basically a mechanism for regulating contingent selections. Its differentiation into operationally autonomous subsystems of politics. In short. also Foucault. which leads him to recognize the need for a more general analytics of power. Foucault’s suggestion that we should leave behind the negative-hierarchical notion of power is not based on sociological arguments. implies that modern society is ‘without an apex or center’ (Luhmann. What is needed is an analytics of power that enables us to analyze power in actu. drawing upon Luhmann’s systems theory. 1990: 31). Foucault puts forward several alternative notions of power that do not subscribe to the discourse of sovereignty. Foucault. in the words of Foucault (1982: 221). Later on. 1997). it is neither necessary nor possible to ﬂesh out the development of Foucault’s power analytics. and partly a regulation of the population. according to Luhmann. Thus. to exercise power ‘is to structure the possible ﬁeld of action of others’. Foucault’s entire project on power is an attempt to undermine a particular image of power.Acta Sociologica 48(2) This is Foucault’s real concern. power is deﬁned as ‘conduct of conduct’. no naïve assumptions of causality are imbedded in this notion of government. In a famous and much quoted statement. from examining what power ‘is’ to investigating how power is actually exercised. In the same vein. However. ‘[p]ower is exercised only over free subjects. modern society is primarily functionally differentiated. I limit myself to sketching only the four main currents. art. Methodologically. It suggests that the contemporary semantics of power should not reﬂect a pre-modern social structure. he attempts to add plausibility to his proposal through detailed historical analyses. Luhmann’s description of functional differentiation provides a radical sociological argument for decapitating the king. In sum. the juridico-political schema. government is not located in a headquarter and it is not possessed by any subject. law.4 Here power is intimately associated with freedom. one that wrongfully extrapolates a speciﬁc historical 158 . and only insofar as they are free’. or of oneself (Foucault. Foucault (1977) introduces his analysis of power as discipline (thereby stressing the productive. Foucault resists the temptation to outline a new theory of power. bio-politics). establishes a shift from ‘what’ questions to ‘how’ questions. Additionally. i. since that would amount to associating power with essentialism and to ignoring its historical transformations.e. he introduces the concept of ‘bio-power’ (including partly a political anatomy of the body. the negative-hierarchical notion of power nevertheless prevails in contemporary mainstream social thought. 1982: 221). Despite the fact that the social structure. 2003: 16) according to which power is a continuation of war with other means. similar to Luhmann. governmental power is non-subjective and comprises no hierarchy (cf. as Foucault continually corrects and revises his own earlier accounts (for an excellent overview of this development. 1990: 94–5). in fact. ‘we still have not cut off the head of the king’ (Foucault. both theoretically and analytically. discipline. The trajectory of these notions is complex. Hence. creative. Conceptualized as government. power is only power insofar as it conditions conduct that could have been different. and positive aspects of power – in contrast to the negative ones emphasized by the juridico-political model). Rather. etc. Soon after that. Rather. or action upon action. Foucault’s approach to power aims at developing conceptual tools that enable us to seize the powers of our time more adequately. Foucault thus complains that in our present way of conceptualizing and analyzing power. which bred this conception of power. passed away long ago. 1990: 88–9). Interestingly. including both liberal and Marxist positions. in Discipline and Punish. we may. According to this view. see Lemke. Initially.
Conceived as a medium. government must currently be attributed ‘pre-eminence’ (Foucault. The mediality of power As should be clear from this brief sketch. to negate these negations and to reconstruct other possibilities’ (1976: 509). the reduction of complexity is not distributed but is transferred to the person using coercion’ (Luhmann. In the case of power. Coercion is equal to a lack of (trust in the) regulation of contingency. in spite of the simultaneous workings of these three forms of power. Luhmann also dissociates himself from understanding power substantially and ontologically and he is not far from Foucault when he refers to the medial character of power. power 159 . . According to Foucault. I turn to the second pillar. This goes. Luhmann differentiates symbolically generalized media of communication according to how they link the action and/or experience of ego and alter. (1991: 102) Nonetheless. This conception of power. to be more precise. Further similarities with Foucault’s power analytics can be identiﬁed. inspired by Talcott Parsons. Luhmann’s solution consists of a double-pillar conception of power. the ﬁrst pillar is discussed.Borch: Systemic Power representation of power into the present. Power is one of these media. is equivalent to the Foucauldian deﬁnition of power (in the form of government) as conduct of conduct – with the speciﬁcation that Luhmann is explicitly concerned with the regulation of selections. As previously mentioned. 1991: 102). it is the coordination of alter’s action and ego’s action that is of interest. power terminates the very moment that ego is coerced to obey. this does not imply the replacement of a society of sovereignty by a disciplinary society [as it was previously claimed in Discipline and Punish.6 Luhmann shares another important point of departure with Foucault that is worth highlighting. the function of the medium of power is to render probable that ego uses alter’s action as a premise for his/her own action. of selected action upon selected action (Luhmann. discipline and government. One of Foucault’s attempts to escape this conception of power is to focus on ‘the strictly relational character of power’ (Foucault. etc. the assumptions in need of replacement. in a functionally equivalent way. to put it differently. .5 Thus. This discourse of sovereignty is counter-posed with historical analyses that delineate two alternative dispositivs of power. If ego cannot act in discrepancy with alter’s requests there is no need for power at all. an interactive situation in which both alter and ego have ‘the generalized potential to conceive of facts as selections implying negations. as it offers a mechanism to coordinate alter’s and ego’s selections. 1990: 95). In this section. 2000: 60). coercion can only be exercised at a speciﬁc cost: ‘The person exercising coercion must himself take over the burden of selection and decision to the same degree as coercion is being exercised . In contrast. as a relation between action and action. deal with this Urproblem of sociality. 1997: 355. Historically. that is. Luhmann says. a number of so-called symbolically generalized media of communication (truth. money. to motivate ego to condition his/her action by alter’s action (Luhmann. Consequently. In the following section. Whereas the late Foucault suggests studying power in the form of government. however. according to which power is constituted by negative sanctions. in reality one has a triangle. similarities can be identiﬁed between Luhmann and Foucault concerning the problems of power and. II.) have emerged which. sovereignty–discipline–government. which in Luhmann is implied by the concept of selection. love. 1976: 517). or. which concerns the functional or medial notion of power. CB] and the subsequent replacement of a disciplinary society by a society of government. 1979: 112). Luhmann’s non-causal starting-point is the problem of double contingency. Foucault’s power analytics can be read as an explicit critique of the discourse of sovereignty and its claim that power can be possessed and transmitted as a substance. for the intimate relation between power and freedom. for example.
Hence. However. This is realized not through the general linguistic turn of Luhmann’s theory but rather via Heider (1926). as a medium. even though Luhmann repudiates an ontological deﬁnition of power. . Luhmann’s famous foundational move is now. Instead. he conceives of communication as a triple selection of information. 1995: 139) Consequently. In this situation.Acta Sociologica 48(2) ‘is’ nothing but a ‘code-guided communication’ (Luhmann. The entire metaphor of possessing. Most importantly. whereas the form of power is constituted by the distinction between the execution of a command and the alternative to this. But more than this. This is already incorrect because the sender does not give up anything in the sense of losing it. as an evolutionary product. to reconstruct systems theory in a way where its basic concept. 110)? And is it not.e. cf. the medium of power is described as a loose coupling of power objectives and sanctions. having. Up to the 1980s. Luhmann realizes the drawbacks that come with the metaphor of transmission. utterance. 1979: 116) or. also 1975. i. III. However. 1979: 116). n. and receiving. many of his power analyses are actually encumbered with ontological formulations. the development of power as a way of regulating contingency ‘becomes an unavoidable priority for further evolution’ (Luhmann. power is conceptualized within an evolutionary framework and not within a general (a-historical) theory of power. and understanding. Luhmann states that: ‘The function of a communication medium lies in transmitting reduced complexity. he undermines the idea that power occupies a societal primacy or that power should be deemed the key notion in a theory of society. rather. for example. By this conceptual strategy. 1997: 356). he ﬁnally settles with it in Social Systems with the argument that: The metaphor of transmission is unusable because it implies too much ontology. that due to escalating societal complexity. it is this transmission of selection which is the main point of interest’ (1979: 113. the whole idea of transmission rather than what is transmitted that is problematic? Eventually. I should note an important consequence of Luhmann’s insertion of power in a media register. the entire ‘thing metaphoric’ is unsuitable for understanding communication. by observing power through the distinction between medium and form. This shift in conceptual perspective has consequences for the notion of power as well. 2000: 82. power is nothing but the name that is given to this communication. What should we understand by premises (Göbel. giving. I shall claim that the second pillar of his theory of power – the 160 . this redeﬁnition poses new questions itself. (Luhmann. a negative sanction (Luhmann. In the case of power too. In his book on power. Power is thereby presented as a question of transmission of selections. as if these were tangible entities that could be mailed. Therefore. Power is observed as an emergent solution to a speciﬁc evolutionary problem. power must now be understood without an ontological notion of transmission. it becomes increasingly difﬁcult to rely on a situational congruence of interest for the regulation and conditioning of contingent selections. .7 In the famous debate with Jürgen Habermas. is detached from the idea of a sender and a receiver. his theory of symbolically generalized media of communication drags along with it a heavy ontological baggage. to paraphrase Foucault’s (1990: 93) nominalistic point. 1977). communication. it is a transmission of premises that is at stake (Luhmann. in light of this problem. Before moving on to this notion of negative sanctions. . Negative sanctions Whereas Luhmann’s functional-medial perspective on power creates a link to his general interest in societal evolution. 1971: 344). in fact. 1976. it is also unsuitable for understanding power. Luhmann speciﬁes that what is transmitted must not be confused with particles or the like. It suggests that the sender gives up something that the receiver then acquires.
Luhmann thus establishes a constitutive link between power and negative sanctions. just as Foucault is cautious to observe the simultaneous operation of sovereignty. Hence. and government. for example.9 Indeed. it is highly inadequate for describing how power is exercised nowadays where the subtle operations of power. The second pillar of Luhmann’s theory of power – the supplement to the strictly functional pillar – is thus embedded in an Old-European semantics of power where power relies on the possibility of sanctioning non-compliance. As Foucault stresses repeatedly. I will argue. this notion of power is not necessarily false.Borch: Systemic Power constitution of power through negative sanctions – endows his conception of power with an Old-European bias that is not only unnecessary but also in conﬂict with the general evolutionary objectives of his theory. the perspective acquired adheres to Luhmann’s explicit emphasis on both societal evolution and functional differentiation. At one point. the constitutive tie between power and negative sanctions a priori forecloses the possibility that power could be exercised in ways that differ from what the Old-European semantics implies. we may observe that Luhmann. we acquire a subtle. Luhmann stresses that ‘[p]olitical power is essentially a threatening power [Drohmacht]. and ﬂexible perspective on power. the claim that power relies on negative sanctions reveals a semantic shortcircuit in Luhmann’s theory. discipline. and contrary to the Foucaldian position. however. he does not rework the idea of sanctions sufﬁciently critically. On the one hand. should rather be analyzed in terms of discipline. he states that ‘the concept of negative sanction is inevitable for the characterization of power as a symbolically generalized medium of communication’ (Luhmann. However. the realization of which both ego and alter prefer to avoid (a so-called Vermeidungsalternative). By deducing the actual operations of power from the prevailing semantics of power. rather than deeming negative sanctions compulsory for the exercise of power. of course. At any rate. In some situations. it is at odds with his theory of functional differentiation because the constitutive notion of sanctions suggests that his conception of power corresponds to a hierarchically differentiated society. 1987: 119). On the other hand. Second. the exercise of power may be supported by negative sanctions. Like Parsons (1969). one cannot conceive of it without this component’ (Luhmann. Recalling Foucault’s analytics of power. the second pillar ultimately points to a divergence of semantics and social structure in Luhmann’s theory. in fact. At 161 . government or. so Foucault argues. one runs the risk of ignoring historical transformations of the forms of power. while Luhmann modiﬁes the media theory. as Luhmann tends to do. This proposal thus emphasizes the purely functional notion of power as an evolutionary outgrowth of the need for regulating the contingencies of alter’s and ego’s actions. reinstalls one of the central characteristics of the juridico-political image of power (its negativity) which Foucault attacks by demonstrating its pre-modern foundation. 1988: 45). The negative sanctions pillar of Luhmann’s theory of power is thus in a double sense converse to his own evolutionary objectives. Similar to the case of symbolically generalized media of communication. What is gained by highlighting only this ﬁrst pillar? First of all. important to stress that. That is. drawing upon Deleuze (1995). open. It is. The reference to sanctions does not mean that power is realized through the actual use of sanctions. How should one deal with this tension between the two pillars in Luhmann’s theory of power? The answer that I opt for in this article is to consider the reliance on negative sanctions as only one among many ways of conditioning action through action. Instead. the inspiration to Luhmann’s notion of negative sanctions arises from the work of Parsons. control. In a different context. I suggest that we view their use as being contingent.8 I would like to question how evident this linkage of power and negative sanctions is. it refers to an alternative. but which it may be necessary for alter to carry out if ego deﬁes alter’s command and does not use his/her actions as a premise for his/her own. However. focusing on the functional dimension of power should not altogether lead us to ignore sanctions.
free. Communication itself is invisible. 1995: 167). hence action also cannot be considered the fundamental sociological unit – a status that should be given to communication. Now. theme in systems theory is not so much the dismissal of action as the ultimate unit of the social but rather. e. ‘social systems can carry out their self-reproduction only with the help of self-observations and selfdescriptions’ (Luhmann.10 IV. Instead. and ultimately the system itself is impossible. Before arguing for this. describing it in an available semantics – as rational. 2000b: 42). Stäheli is critical of this resurrection of action in the theory of communication and he questions the necessity of binding communications to actions (Stäheli. ‘This form of power’. namely by interpreting utterance as action. Thus. imposes a law of truth on him which he must recognize and which others have to recognize in him. but this common point of departure leads them in different directions. Parsons. Foucault says: . (1982: 212) Actually. even though the system is actually a system of communications. as delinquents. communication must be made visible. On the one hand. what makes the relationship between communication and action a crucial. it will not. marks him by his own individuality. it has to bypass this fact and present itself as a system of actions. I attempt in the following to demonstrate how the openness and ﬂexibility referred to may be redeemed. Subjectiﬁcation as semantic intrusion According to Foucault.. attaches him to his own identity. enterprising citizens. Luhmann convincingly argues that action must be secondary to communication. Here. Whereas Foucault examines the power effects of how the subject is constructed in different social settings. On the other hand. I will argue. Luhmann entirely excludes the subject from his theory in order to understand sociality purely in terms of communication. What is at stake is merely an attempt to show how systems theory can be opened towards an analysis of subjectiﬁcation. In order to overcome this tension. that actions are still ascribed a very important – in fact. In practice. ‘communication cannot be observed directly.Acta Sociologica 48(2) other times. the suggestion is that the functional deﬁnition of power may enable us to incorporate into systems theory what Foucault analyzes as exercise of power through subjectiﬁcation. I should emphasize that the following reconstruction is not an attempt to ﬁnd a place for the subject in Luhmann’s work since that would amount to a renunciation of one of the theory’s strongest points. applies itself to immediate everyday life which categorizes the individual. When and how this is the case is ultimately an empirical question to which no answers will be provided here. In the 162 . I draw upon Urs Stäheli (2000b) and a problem he has identiﬁed within systems theory concerning Luhmann’s attempt to overcome the sociological action theory of Weber. More speciﬁcally. this is realized by observing communication in a simpliﬁed way. But if communication is invisible the system cannot observe itself. In positive terms. but it requires that power is detached from negative sanctions. 1995: 164). in fact. . the ways in which individuals are constructed as speciﬁc ‘subjects’. only inferred’ (1995: 164). Luhmann claims. which is accomplished when the system is ‘ﬂagged as an action system’ (Luhmann. etc. possible. hence self-reproduction. etc. may be observed as techniques of exercising power. consumers. but simultaneously precarious. The problem is situated between the following two assumptions. autopoiesis. The question is now whether Luhmann thereby precludes himself from analyzing those ways of exercising of power that Foucauldian studies of contemporary political power are so successful at diagnosing. constitutive – role in social systems. constitutive subjectivity. the question is: Is it possible within systems theory to conceive of subjectiﬁcation as a form of power? This is. etc. Luhmann and Foucault agree to repudiate the idea of an a-historic.g. .
responsible subject facilitates one particular way in which communications could be ﬂagged as actions (Stäheli. Here. Providing and promoting a particular semantics of actions may be interpreted as an attempt to condition the basis of the communicative reproduction. the very way social systems ﬂag and describe their utterances as actions. As Luhmann states: The semantic expenditure required for the communication system to describe itself as an action system is in part a problem of cultural history. Rose. every system is left to decide on its own premises how it selects its operations and how it connects to them. say. often. to particular technologies of the self. in part a problem of a speciﬁc situation. there is no guarantee that systemic power will succeed any better than other ways of exercising power. Whether a 163 . Nikolas Rose refers to a particular welfare reform program ‘which required that children of welfare recipients attend school as a condition of their parents’ receiving beneﬁts’ (1999: 264). In short. Semantic intrusion. the point at which communications are ﬂagged as actions. then. so that in time. instead. I should stress the element of freedom that both Luhmann and Foucault regard as the condition for any exercise of power. Nevertheless. responsible subjects (see Rose. One important issue must be touched upon concerning semantic intrusion. This attempt to steer not only endeavors to designate or indicate actions as. where individuals are constructed as active. It is important to notice that this form of power operates purely functionally without any reference to negative sanctions. 1999). speciﬁc ways in which individuals or social systems are to conduct themselves. i. How are we to characterize this kind of power within systems theory? Since Luhmann abandons the subject tradition. Promoting a particular semantics does not warrant compliance. responsible citizens. rational choices. it is essential to the constitution of social systems and their reproduction. The purpose of introducing this notion is explicitly to stress that the semantics is not external to the governed systems. 1999). so to speak. he can tell if he is acting and relieve the pressure on social controls by self-control. Hence. the possible use of sanctions serves to buttress the subjectiﬁcation of active. For then it turns out that the way in which actions are attributed can be conceived as a systemic counterpart to the Foucauldian forms of subjectiﬁcation. the political promotion of the active.e. it also produces expectations to connecting communications and. For does not this notion run contrary to Luhmann’s very idea of operationally closed systems? Does it not imply that systems are determinable from the outside? To caution against this impression. To put it as clearly as possible: All social systems must describe themselves as action systems. perhaps even in advance. seeks to inﬁltrate the very reproduction of social systems in that it provides and advances a semantics (of rational choices) which the systems may use to reproduce themselves as (rational) action systems. a systemic mode of ‘governing at a distance’ (cf. otherwise they cannot observe and thereby reproduce themselves. Take. or semantic power. I shall – for want of a better notion – entitle the kind of power that is exercised through subjectiﬁcation semantic intrusion. for example. is a type of action by which alter aims to condition ego’s action. sanctions will often support the subjectiﬁcations or semantic intrusions – usually through a power of withdrawal – if one presumes not to behave in accordance with the expectations that are associated with the semantics. focus on what power theoretical consequences it has if one accepts Luhmann’s conceptualization. for example. the governmental studies of advanced liberal modes of subjectiﬁcation. that is. 1998: 324–5). rather.Borch: Systemic Power present context. This may be interpreted as a strategy of power which. On the contrary. In his analysis of advanced liberal modes of government. In the words of Luhmann (1995: 168): The right kind of self-attribution may then be taught more or less successfully to an actor. I leave this part of his argument aside and.
sanctions are not required in the exercise of power. More accurately. However. In Luhmann’s analysis. Luhmann warns against overestimating the reach of power. and non-causal perspective on power with a general theory of society and its evolution. power is placed on a par with other symbolically generalized media (money. this does not preclude that action is often conditioned by action with the help of negative sanctions. more clearly and profoundly than Foucault. Luhmann says. V. examining how action in the concrete is regulated through action. provocative is that this conceptualization eludes a widespread tendency in social and political theory of ascribing power a predominant societal status. italics added) Indeed. explains why the exercise of power often contains ‘a strangely utopian element’ (Dean 1999: 33). a sophisticated analytics of power. as a second pillar of his theory of power. Such an approach would be open to Foucault’s argument that in modern society we may observe simultaneous workings of different forms of power.). All the more surprising is it that Luhmann himself. an immanent problem in systems theory was identiﬁed. even if we stress the functional pillar of Luhmann’s notion of power. In dealing with this problem. power is characterized by providing a regulation of alter’s action and ego’s action. 164 . would proﬁt from using Luhmann’s functional deﬁnition of power as analytical starting-point. As one of these media. Drawing upon Foucault. In this article. a more open systemic conception of and approach to power has been suggested in which Luhmann’s main contributions to sociology come more to the fore. In other words. I have argued that this analysis of functional differentiation offers a profound sociological basis for Foucault’s critique of the discourse of sovereignty and its negative-hierarchical notion of power. . – all this depends on circumstances at the social system’s disposal. one system cannot interfere in another system’s internal operations. as an effective means of dealing with increasing complexity. (1995: 168. etc. Here. As systems are autopoietically organized. that is. more accurately. In this article.Acta Sociologica 48(2) semantics of vital forces is all that is needed or interests must be taken into consideration . truth. emphasizes the constitutive import of negative sanctions on power. According to Luhmann. differentiated according to how they connect the action and/or experience of alter and ego. for which purpose I invented the notion of semantic intrusion. studying what forms the exercise of power takes in actu. to some perhaps. this was demonstrated in the systemic reconstruction of subjectiﬁcation. inviting comparisons of their functional contributions. . In sum. power is viewed as a byproduct of societal evolution or. Conclusion Symbolically generalized media of communication are. Luhmann thus offers a sociological perspective that. I argued that the signiﬁcance attributed to negative sanctions is converse to Luhmann’s self-proclaimed focus on evolutionary processes. love. This part of Luhmann’s theory of power is indeed intriguing because it combines a sophisticated. I have therefore asserted that systems theory would keep better in line with its evolutionary objectives by paying primary attention to the functional aspect of power. the functionally differentiated subsystems of modern society are themselves organized around the differentiation of the symbolically generalized media of communication. combining a complex theory of society with an evolutionary dimension. What is at once fascinating and. ﬂexible. through a Foucaldian critique.
55). Foucault expresses similar power-economic considerations: ‘Power is only exercised at a cost. They are immediately painful to the latter who is the target of them but they are unpleasant to the powerful too.Borch: Systemic Power Notes I am deeply indebted to Garrett Batten. the aim of the following is the reverse: to use Foucault as a corrective to Luhmann. Not until much later does he acknowledge that not even this escapes an ontological framework. In his early work. Thus. On the one hand. Luhmann says. It is precisely this difference that institutes the power of the powerful. there is a risk of provoking revolts. 1998: 2). Luhmann. Previously. Urs Stäheli. Power is inﬂated by empty threats and it is deﬂated if one relinquishes the possibility of conditioning action through action too often (Luhmann. 2. 1989b: 345). a radical Foucauldian critique would argue that all symbolically generalized media are fundamentally media of power because they reproduce a normalization of communication (cf. they appraise them differently. References Andersen. 5. This is Foucault’s position when he argues that ‘space is fundamental in any exercise of power’ (Foucault. . a power of withdrawal relying on the possibility of cutting or entirely withdrawing expected welfare beneﬁts (Luhmann.) into negative ones. there could be resistance and disobedience’ (Foucault. If power is exercised too violently. the powerful can better live with the sanctions than the subordinate can. 1991: 103). power exists in transforming positive sanctions (social beneﬁts. 2000a: 177). 1. Even though both ego and alter prefer to avoid the sanctions. through action. Alain Pottage has analyzed power in Luhmann and Foucault. Koselleck. 1987: 120–1). for example. All translations from German are by the author. it is associated with the problematization of acts and practices in the Ancient World. through which the state of justice of the Middle Ages. Power is only exercised as long as the negative sanctions remain a possibility. Bristol: Policy Press. Luhmann applies the economic concepts of inﬂation and deﬂation in the theory of symbolically generalized media. through coercion – and then the power ends. the sanctions have a negative value to the powerful as well as to the subordinate. N. ‘because it is an attempt to capture the exact essence of things. in his later writings. Andersen (2003). and three anonymous reviewers for valuable comments. The notion of government has a dual role in Foucault’s historical writings. 1989a: 232). it is used to describe the process. and in the contributions in Borch and Larsen (2003). their purest possibilities. (2003) Discursive Analytical Strategies: Understanding Foucault. But even here. . 7. 165 . 6. but whereas Pottage uses systems theory ‘as a sort of critical complement to Foucault’s project’ (Pottage. 4. Laclau. 1970b: 135. Luhmann also emphasizes the importance of positive sanctions in modern welfare states where the exercise of power cannot be based on the most radical negative sanction. physical violence. Luhmann presumes that the idea of transmission of selections can replace the assertion of possession (see Luhmann. Å. 10. 1979: 166). According to Luhmann. Possible relations between Luhmann and Foucault are also identiﬁed by Brunkhorst (1990). Stäheli. Like Parsons. to criticize the classical theory of power for not being able to uncover the origin of power amounts to an identity position that Luhmann himself. In other words. One might also consider whether spatial arrangements could be interpreted as another way for alter. transformed into the administrative state during the ﬁfteenth and sixteenth centuries. etc. or if the intervention is too discontinuous. 9. This basically economic perspective on power associates Luhmann with Foucault as well. ‘or rather the result of the process. would reject. . n. A Nietzschean–Foucauldian critique would problematize this search for an origin (Ursprung). 3. gradually becomes “governmentalized”’ (Foucault. Against Luhmann’s theory of differentiation. and their carefully protected identities’ (Foucault. as the preferred actions must now be provided in a more difﬁcult way. Kneer (1996). 8. 2000: 371). On the other hand. Granted. to condition ego’s actions that does not rely on negative sanctions. Reka Prasad.
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