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Fr. 719

May 30, 2016

German sociologist Niklas Luhmann makes a concerted effort throughout his work to dissolve the subject and everyday understandings of subjectivity into a number of distinct functions at work within disparate subsystems. If the economic subsystem leads to the development of a consumerist subject function and the political subsystem leads to the development of an activist or leftist subject function, these two functions will sooner or later manifest themselves as contradictions in the person’s thought, speech and deeds. When confronted with such contradiction in a person, we face two ways of making sense thereof. Either we can posit the unity of an underlying subjectivity enabling us to reconcile these functions at a higher level or we can chalk the disparity up to the realities of the socio-economic world and cast subjectivity off altogether.

Naturally, Luhmann favors the second solution to the problem of “personal contradiction” and thus deems the knowing subject an illusion. For it comes as no surprise that different subsystems with distinct semantics and opposed ends do not fit together in a single unitary subject, and the subject’s role as functions therein preclude our positing such a subject by which the functions so at odds might be reconciled. In other words, there exist as many subjects as there are independent subsystems, understood broadly as fields of organized activity. Between those subjects, there can be no coherency but only contingency.

Therefrom follows a view of persons strongly characterized by a cold, even dark humour, content to make note of everyday absurdity. The average person runs about, attributing this or that to her underlying subjectivity, without the least awareness of the disjunctive root of her being and thus unable to account for the contradictions with which she and those around her are inevitably confronted. Those in the know can only break out in grim laughter over the society-wide illusion and take what pleasure they may in knowing that, deep-down, they are nothing but shattered subjectivity, one operation amongst others in the cogs of subsystems turning on themselves.

Before resigning ourselves to the hopelessness of this situation, there remain a few questions worth asking both of Luhmann’s methodology and what conclusions we might draw from this understanding of subjectivity. First, if there exists a subsystem for every function and Luhmann’s research into subsystems constitutes just such a function, this research must itself fall within the purview of a given subsystem. Though we might suppose that that function belongs to the university subsystem, this supposition brings with it further complications. For the university itself may appear as a collection of different subsystems as the modern set-up of departments, faculties and schools would suggest.

In Luhmann’s work, we could then wonder whether a single function manages to collect the divergent strands of his research into law, sociology, mass media, medicine, etc. As subsystems with independent semantics and ends, it remains to be seen how these might be bound to the perspective of a single function. If, on the other hand, Luhmann were to maintain that these different fields belong to one and the same subsystem or, instead, that a function can work across subsystems, then our question shifts with the author’s contention. Insofar as there appear, on this reading, to exist some functions or subsystems (e.g. academic inquiry on social subsystems, university) which include or take others as their object, it remains to be seen what justifies their universal scope of application. In short, we must know what makes them sufficiently different from other, more limited, functions and subsystems. This question proves all the more important in light of Luhmann’s portrayal of his findings in social subsystems as a model capable of universal application across disparate fields. Otherwise, his approach remains suspiciously close to the paradigm of philosophy as the queen of sciences overseen by the transcendental subject.

Secondly, we must inquire as to what consequences might follow from Luhmann’s advances in descriptive acuity. More simply, if we have learned more about the true, inner workings of the social world, this knowledge might leave us, even as mere operations within a subsystem, in a position to formulate new plans of action within different subsystems. Yet no prescriptive injunctions seem to follow from our greater apprehension of socioeconomic reality.  As but one example, we could ask whether everyday language with its references to subjectivity and wide use of indexicals should be changed to reflect the newly acquired knowledge that subjectivity is an illusion. No new semantic appears, however, to figure amongst Luhmann’s plans. As in other fields, a description system allowing for closer examination of reality without proposing novel forms of action with regards to reality can prove but a half-system in the end. Nor would anything seem to suggest that such a system precludes the formulation of a new semantic of subjectivity reconciling our everyday notions with the realities of the world.

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