It is not an easy nor an enchanting task to review a book on constructed realities and self-referential media these days. Some time has passed since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon took the lives of thousands and the US government took on its “war on terrorism.” A good share of academia’s hyperbolic slogans (referencing real wars and victims as not having taken place) still resonate, their empty avantgarde gestures seem horribly out of place at best. To narcistically reshuffle the worn-out ideas of hyperreality and simulacra comes dangerously close to an outright denial of reflection. What is potentially gained by calling September 11th “the mother of all events” besides another boring demonstration of radical chic? In fact, the very real Manichean rhetoric dominating the media and antisepticly dividing the world into civilization and barbarism made more than just a few unreconstructed Marxists long for a solid dose of good old ideology critique. The “return of reality,” frequently proclaimed by commentators in the months since September 11, cannot lead back to a naive realism, though. Devoid of both the postmodern euphoria and the apocalyptic nostalgia that characterizes much of current media studies, the serene prose of German sociologist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) might not be the worst point of departure when fresh perspectives are needed.
Originally published in 1995 as a collection of lectures and subsequently revised for a longer second edition, The Reality of the Mass Media was the last in a series of studies focusing on a single social system before Luhmann’s chef d’oeuvre Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft brilliantly wrapped up his intellectual career with a solid 1100 pages. Again, the familiar propositions Luhmann put to test in his work on law, politics, economy, art and so forth come to the fore again: his “ur-distinction” separating psychic systems from communications, both regarded as operationally closed spheres; communications as the basic elements of the social; the differentiation of the social sphere into non-hierarchical functional subsystems; the incompatible codes of these subsystems, resulting in incommensurable descriptions of society and reality.
As any self-proclaimed jetty, systems theory sooner or later had to take on the mass media. Yet, to regard them merely as a supplement to other social systems, the sociologist reasons, would be to deny their unique dynamics and their constructivist potential. Mass media have had an important place in Luhmann’s theoretical framework ever since, though. Indeed, his version of modern society relies on the effects of the “media of dissemination” that allow for an enormous explosion of complexity by spreading communicational offers and setting them free from local contexts.
Niklas Luhmann, thus, is definitely no stranger to the self-referential processing of information. Rather than proclaiming a total proliferation of signs, however, systems theory is firmly grounded in a theory of differentiation and presents a rather ordered, if hyper-complex modern society. Readers interested in more than the inevitably sketchy remarks of a review should have a look at Eva Knodt’s introduction to Social Systems(Stanford, 1995). Knodt offers a good summary of the main theses and the general architecture of the theory, as well as an account of Luhmann’s position in the modern/postmodern debate.
The mark of modernity, its primary structural characteristic, is functional differentiation. Perpetually, Luhmann has delineated the evolution of social systems into autopoietic autonomy, i.e. their operational closure, internal self-organization and self-reproduction as well as the exclusiveness of their contribution to society. The process is accompanied and directed by the evolution of specific codes as the most abstract selectors. These binary codes, that let the systems observe themselves and their environments, are mutually incompatible. Once operationally closed, there is no direct intervention into the system by its environment. As a theoretical alternative to such a permeability, Luhmann proposes the concept of structural coupling, a mutual irritation of systems. (An example: Art communication takes place in the art system, nowhere else. Politics takes place in the political sphere. Any ban of, say, new, “radical,” or “obscene” British art from museums in New York is not an operation in the art system. It might well have consequences for the production of new art works, e.g. provoking less “provocative” art. In that case, the political decision, itself irritated (in a literal sense!) by art, has been an irritation to the system of art.) Modern society, ultimately, is centerless, or in system’s diction: polycontextural. A politically reasonable decision might go against the existing law, religious belief often contradicts scientific truth. And vice versa. And so on. How do the mass media fit into this general pattern?
The take-off for the differentiation of the mass media into operational closure has been the evolution of “media of dissemination.” While already writing is generally regarded as one of these media, Luhmann’s focuses on the crucial aspect of interruption and its effects on the mode of communication in his definition of mass media:
Interaction is ruled out by the interposition of technology, and this has far-reaching consequences which define for us the concept of mass media…. A surplus of possibilities for communication thus arises which can only be regulated within the system, by means of self-organization and the system’s own constructions of reality. (2)
This enormous complexity is reduced within systems by their highly selective codes. A system, by definition, is less complex than its environment, it would have to copy its environment to live up to its complexity. For the science system, an event is either true or false, there is no third option. This reduction of complexity, then, is the precondition for the internal generating of complexity. (How could one fail to be astonished by the endless innovation of scientific methodologies, theories, disciplines, etc.)
With often puzzling rediscriptions, Luhmann perpetuates his rhetorical tradition of defamiliarizing the generally accepted (self-)descriptions of social systems. Discussing a number of familiar assumptions about the role of the mass media in our society, he dismisses notions of manipulation, faithful documentation of reality. Far from “manufacturing consent” (N. Chomsky) mass media are said to know neither hidden powers nor evil schemes. While this disinterest in questions of institutional power comes with a partial blindness to the growing influence of the Murdochs, Kirchs, and Berlusconis of this world, Luhmann is more interested in the general function of the mass media, a function that is installed before any specific content, theme, or ideology takes place. Consequently, the opening paragraph reminds us that “Whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in which we live, we know through the mass media.” (1) Any suspicion or doubt has to use the very media under attack. Thus, rather than denouncing the ideological biases - biases that can be observed - a sociological account according to systems theory should concentrate on the mechanisms of mass media communication. Despite admitting that manipulation and censorship might be the case now and then (and that, when these things happen, it is possible to prove the media wrong), such instances are seen as mere exceptions to the rule. And the rule is that individuals can only be irritated and not controlled by communications. Therefore, Luhmann stubbornly and with ever slight irony insists on “the social ‘innocence’ of the mass media, their harmlessness.”
Finally, Luhmann opts for the binary distinction information/non-information. In the autopoietical operations of the system, information is incessantly turned into non-information - indeed: who cares for yesterday’s news? - and this transformation and the subsequent redundancy triggers off a permanent and insatiable greed for more “irritation” by the environment. The internal procession of these informations produces a horizon of ever-new uncertainties which, in turn, will effect ever-new irritations. Mass media, Luhmann reasons, keeps society hyperalert by striving for newness.
According to the sociologist, three main programmatic spheres have evolved within the system of mass media. Generally, programs provide more nuanced rules of selecting information than the rather un-specific code which in its strict binarity is itself devoid of any hints about modes of application. The programmatic spheres of the mass media are news and in-depth reporting, entertainment, and advertising. Luhmann readily acknowledges their striking diversity: while the adherence of news and reports to the code is pretty evident, advertisement has the “latent function” to provide taste for those in need. Entertainment, at last, is the most enigmatic of these realms. Its principle is to untangle uncertainties triggered off by the confrontation of everyday reality with a second, fictional one. While this conception of entertainment might not be completely implausible, Luhmann has a hard time drawing the fine line separating entertainment and art. In fact, he proposes similar, if refined, arguments for works of art. What it finally boils down to is the familiar and contestable high/low-distinction: (plenty of) redundancy in entertainment, (plenty of) ambiguity in art. His analysis of Art as a Social System(Stanford UP, 2000), despite its impressive insights, adheres to an unspoken yet rather obvious high modernist aesthetic. While such a bias might not be such a big problem (despite their questioning of value-systems, postmodern theories themselves are hardly free from partiality), it definitely supports notions of autonomy and thus plays an important role in Luhmann’s attempt to describe it as social system. Postmodern art, pop, movies, media art etc., in short: those artistic products that potentially work against the clear-cut boundaries of a traditional (read: modernist) work of art do have a hard time to be consegrated by Luhmann.
Here again, entertainment is set apart from the sphere of art, since the function of the latter works exactly against a reality that can be taken for granted. While in a work of art, its self-referentiality is of utmost importance, i.e. the question of how it generates its reality and how it reveals its information is foregrounded, these aspects hardly play a decisive role in entertainment. Entertainment keeps us informed, art questions our sources of information by contrasting the “real reality” with a “fictional reality,” thereby directing the attention to the contingencies of our “ways of worldmaking” (N. Goodman)
The differences between the programmatic spheres are further accentuated in the modes of structural coupling with other systems, which are the most likely sources of mutual irritation. Entertainment has strong affinities to art, news and in-depth reporting to politics, advertising to economy. Nevertheless, these forms have to be unified in their function. Together, Luhmann insists, all these seemingly incongruous modes of mass media communication will produce a “background reality” that itself does not have to be communicated.
But on the whole the contribution of all three forms of mass media communication - andthis is where they converge - can be said to be in creating the conditions for further communication which do not themselves have to be communicated in the process. This applies to being up-to-date with one’s information just as it does to being up-to-date culturally, as far as judgements about values, ways of life, what is in/what is out of fashion are concerned. Thanks to the mass media, then, it is also possible to judge whether it is considered acceptable or provocative to stand apart and reveal one’s own opinion.”(65)
We might be in agreement or in opposition to this “acit knowledge,” but at least we know where to start disagreeing. Luhmann hence counters the popular notions of a collective memory as positive knowledge integrating all psychic systems by the social memory created in the endless operations of the mass media. It is the perpetuated pattern of assumptions of shared knowledge of reality. Nevertheless, this structure of mutual expectation does not fully give up a rather homogeneous information shared throughout society. Or rather: it assumes that people mutually assume a highly homogeneous knowledge. Further studies, focussing on the effects of satellite t.v. and internet communication might contest the validity of such conceptual homogeneity.
In the permanent updating of this background reality, (self-)descriptions of society and reality are produced, resulting in a social semantics that serves as a point of reference and orientation within the system of mass media as well as in other realms. Therefore, the function of mass media can best be pinned down as representing rather than producing the public sphere. The public sphere can then be regarded as an invitation to the reflection of every system’s boundary within society. It confronts the respective systems with their society-internal environment. They are the legitimate heirs of earlier modes of representation, Luhmann will add in Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft: fleeting moments, not solid monuments. The instability of ever changing information substitutes the reliability of older representations. As such, the mass media provide the source of reflection for the other social systems.
An astonishing publishing success, the German edition of The Reality of Mass Mediawas received with remarkable retention in academia. The theoretical framework was familiar, the brevity of the study, lacking the in-depth analysis and historical immersion of the other works probably contributed to a certain hesitancy. Yet even adherents of systems theory uttered their doubts about the twofold notion of information as both code of the mass media and constitutive part of any communication. According to systems theory, communication should not be regarded as the transmission of a self-identical information; it is more accurately perceived in its fundamental contingency as the tripartite selection of information (fact dimension), utterance (social dimension), and understanding (temporal dimension). Since communication is the basic element of all social systems, information must be regarded as ubiquitous, the one fundamental component of the whole social sphere. The differentiation of a single system specializing on the code - against the programmatic processing of information within alternatively coded systems - seems unlikely. The mass media, finally, a “super-system” (N. Binczek) with a “super-code” information/non-information working against the cherished functional differentiation at the heart of Luhmann’s theory? At times, Luhmann himself implicitly seems to point in that direction. Acknowledging the similarities of the proposed code to the new/old distinction (information is new only once; its consecutive redundancy insists on newness!), he discusses the almost neurotic longing for innovation and “the new” as a general trait of modernity. He even proposes new/old as a possible code for the system of art. Thus, newness, innovation, information, actuality - the sheer temporality of information in modern society becomes visible. Did Luhmann’s study by trying to welcome the mass media in his confederacy of social systems paradoxically provide clues for an alternative to his version of modernity?
Quite a few critics within the media studies camp, booming when The Reality of the Mass Media originally was published and booming ever since, would vivaciously agree with such a reading. Luhmann’s clear-cut division and isolation of social spheres as well as the basic distinction between psychic and social systems must appear somehow odd; to them (mass) media rather than separating in fact link these spheres, connect individuals and machines, psyches and technology. Instead of positing the continuity of functional differentiation, beginning in the 18th and advancing well into the 21st century, authors such as Friedrich Kittler or Paul Virilio argue from the perspective of the changing techno-logic of media innovations. While these authors agree on the subsequent influence of media on mankind, the evaluation of this intersection of man and machine shows remarkable differences. Paul Virilio’s dromology, e.g. War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (Verso, 1997) holds onto a certain nostalgia for mankind left behind by the speed of communication. For Friedrich Kittler and his discourse analysis of technologies, e.g. Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford, 1999) these human echos hardly play a decisive role any more. Technologies are said to dictate the modes and speed of the communciation, they have the power to determine human perceptions, actions, even emotions. Contesting the instrumentalism of the quite common anthropocentric approaches, man is seen as a prosthesis of the machine, rather than vice versa. Consequently, this branch of media studies focuses on the radical discontinuity of discrete epochs and epistemes that originate in the wake of new technologies. While Kittler agrees with the key importance Luhmann claims for printing in the making of modern society, he definitely would repeal the sociologist’s smooth subsumption of audiovisual and especially digital media under the logic initiated by the early media of dissemination.
Indeed, Luhmann does not have much to say about these “materialities of communication” (cf. the volume of the same title, edited by Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, Stanford, 1994, to which Luhmann also contributed) - a “blindness” he is surprisingly frank about. Early on and quite explicitly machines, technology, and hardware are banned from communication and located in the environment of the social:
The way in which these technologies work structures and limits what is possible as mass communication. This has to be taken into account in any theory of the mass media. Nonetheless, we do not want to regard the work of these machines, nor indeed their mechanical or electronic internal workings, as an operation within the system of the mass media. (3)
They cannot influence information, Luhmann reasons, since they simply are not part of the utterance. A second glimpse at his conceptualization of communication reveals that this blindness should not come as such a big surprise. Communication as a combination of the three selections information, utterance, and understanding is a highly contingent and thus improbable event. In the overcoming of the three improbabilities (understanding, reach, and acceptance) media play a central part: “We would like to call media the evolutionary achievements that enter at those possible breaks in communication and that serve in a functionally adequate way to transform what is improbable into what is probable.” (Social Systems, 160) Thus, on an early evolutionary level, language will deal with the improbability of understanding. Writing, printing, television broadcast, digital media then help communication to unceasingly reach new social realms. Symbolically generalized communication media, such as truth, or love, finally make the acceptance of communication more likely. Luhmann, therefore, focuses on what these media share, namely the power to enable communication to continue, rather than on what sets them apart, and as a result he plays down the technical specificity.
The Reality of the Mass Media reflects this general tendency to smooth down the differences in media technology, and to integrate later evolutionary developments in the logic of functional differentiation, which is to say, basically, the logic of printing. It is not without irony that the US edition counters this print loyality by the mise-en-abyme t.v. screens gracing the cover of the book. Still, this choice is a decisive shift away from the image of a book painted upon on the German edition - a medial disruption Luhmann’s argument works against. Unsurprisingly, then, there is no analysis of the shifts from book to radio, to television, and to computer - an omission that is further amplified by the neglect of the structural coupling of psychic systems and communication. In Art as a Social System, the coordination of perception and communication was dealt with in a long and fascinating opening chapter. Here, the individual is merely theorized as a social address of communication, to be found between scripts and schemes.
It might be argued that precicely the unwillingness to accept any medial a priori, a lack of interest in talking about senders and receivers, about materiality and channels of information, opens up the reflective potential so cherished by systems theory. Yet, such a theoretical decision has to accept its own contingency since it also avoids questions that could become more and more pressing in the near future: Which technical modes of operations make sure that something is transmitted at all? How do they affect the informational value? Who will have access to information and communication and who does not? These rather traditional inquiries can be refused with a nod to the dangers of a return to ontological reasoning. Ultimately, it appears to be a matter of intellectual choice: what does one want theory to be, a mere epistemological tool (not only accepting the self-referentiality of any scientific inquiry but affirming it) or one way of critical intervention. No doubt, Luhmann would opt for the former, as his resolute farewell to critical theory in Social Systems reveals.
Sporadically, the gaining of endless reflective potential by constructivist epistemologies, denying any materiality to intrude the freedom of the observer, might not be enough. If the reality of the attacks on September 11th and the resulting “war on terrorism” with its political control of the “event” can be used for a reflection on media studies at all, then their “message” could be deciphered as follows: never trust a single mode of analytical method. Neither ideology critique, nor systems logic, nor media studies alone can or should provide all the answers and none should be ruled out in advance.
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