Niklas Luhmann’s systems theory (and “The Paradigm of Immunization”)

Near the beginning of “The Paradigm of Immunization” (ch. 2) in Bios, Esposito tracks the two critical lines which illustrate the “immunitary semantics at the center of modern self-representation” (48). One is “Freud to Norbert Elias,” how violence becomes embedded “within the confines of the individual pysche” (48); the other line he tracks leads to “Parson’s functionalism and Luhmann’s systems theory”(49). Esposito remarks that Luhmann “is the one who has derived the most radical consequences from immunization, particularly regarding terminology…His thesis that systems function not by rejecting conflicts and contradictions, but by producing them as necessary antigens for reactivating their own antibodies, places the entire Luhmannian discourse within the semantic orbit of immunity” (49).

Earlier this term I wrote a short piece on Luhmann’s systems theory and the concept of the individual  that emerges in his essay “The Individuality of the Individual: Historical Meanings and Contemporary Problems.” I thought it might be interesting to read a gloss of some of his work for those of you who aren’t familiar with Luhmann (I wasn’t before this term). I think the focus on the individual as a conscious system could inform our discussion of Esposito’s analysis of  “individuation.” Also, we might be better positioned to talk about why Esposito includes such a wide theoretical archive in the first few pages of chapter two and then narrows to mostly discussing Hobbes and Locke for the bulk of the chapter. I am also trying to put together a more standard set of response notes to the chapter but I am not sure if they will be ready before class. Hopefully my excerpts on Luhmann will be somewhat useful.

In “The Individuality of the Individual: Historical Meanings and Contemporary Problems,” Niklas Luhmann offers a version of individuality from the vantage point of systems theory. After framing the basic tenants of his theory of autopoietic systems, Luhmann states, “whoever gets this message will at least see the possibility of defining the individuality of an individual as autopoiesis” (322). Luhmann argues that conscious systems are self-referential and self-constituting. “There is no individuality ab extra, only self-referential individuality. But this means that cells and societies, maybe physical atoms, certainly immune systems and brains, are all individuals. Conscious systems have no exceptional status.” (322). Individuality, then, can be seen as a closed, self-created (or self-maintaining) system. This is not an individuality of the human subject, but rather an individuality of a conscious system. The integral whole here is not the “whole human” in any sense, but rather the (unexceptional) conscious system.

Like all other systems, the conscious system is defined by its difference from its environment. Unlike social systems or living systems “conscious systems” have the ability to recognize this difference, “the identity of the difference between themselves and their environments” (322). This ability to conceive the difference does not, however, change the circumstances of the conscious system or make it an exceptional type of system. A key point here is the fact that the only recognition of difference that takes place is “always one difference” (322). In this way, the awareness of the conscious system is an awareness of a rigid binary difference—that of self and other, system and environment. This boundary is inflexible. Although the environment of the system can affect the system, it nevertheless remains a closed, self-constituting (self-replicating) system.


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