Monday, February 13, 2012

Getting the Terminology Right. . .

After finishing Hayles' wonderful book, How We Became Posthuman, which gives an excellent background of first-order and some second-order cybernetics/systems theory that really helps me understand Wolfe, I decided to re-read the introduction and Ch. 1 of thee Wolfe book. I have all these terms wandering around in my head that I decided I needed to distinguish for myself ("make a distinction") in the blog. Ch. 1 is particularly good since it deals with systems theory and Derrida. 

First, we have to understand that the distinction between system and environment (at the very least this distinction) is a functional distinction rather than ontological claim (see pg xix). It seems that this is true for many of the distinctions made. As Wolfe puts it, "A preference for meaning over world, for order over perturbation, for information over noise is only a preference" (18). I take this to mean that whatever we designate and distinguish as a "system," the system at the same time includes "the environment," which is NOT a pre-given 'nature' or any other sort of ontological entity, but only a functional designation of that which is heterogeneous to the system. 

Wolfe distinguishes three levels of any given system: 

1.) the self-referential autopoeisis of a biological system's 'material substrate' 

2.) The self-referential formal dynamics of 'meaning' [. . .] that some (but not all) autopoietic systems use to reduce environmental complexity and interface with the world.

3.) The self-reference of language proper as a second-order phenomenon and  a specific medium. (pgs xxii-xxiii)

Language is a medium that can help "psychic systems" and "social systems" interpenetrate, but these systems are independent, closed, autopoeitic systems. That is "psychic systems" (which I assume means the same as "consciousness" or that "consciousness" is a particular type of psychic system) and "social system" (which is associated with communication) are completely separate. This is how we get the idea that "humans cannot communicate" in the sense that communication does not happen by a "transfer" of meaning "from" one consciousness to another--this is impossible. Rather "communication communicates"

It is crucial to understand that Luhmann and Derrida use the word "communication" in two different senses. Derrida, according to Wolfe, is critiquing the communication of first order systems of theory (13). Instead, we should think of Luhmann's communication as synonymous with Derrida' notions of "writing" in the largest sense of "trace structure." This allows us to understand how Derrida and Luhmann both do not ontologically distinguish between man writing and other nonhuman writing--writing/communication is inhuman. But writing/communication is not synonymous with "language." 

Wolfe writes, "For Luhmann, then, language is not constitutive of either psychic or social systems, but is rather a specific second order phenomena--a type of "symbolically generalized communication media" that those systems use in the service of the first order process of meaning" (22). Thus, communication can happen without language--and--substituting Derrida's terminology--writing can happen without "language" because writing is the iterable mark, the trace. 

But now we have to deal with the process of "meaning": 
Meaning enables psychic and social systems to interpenetrate while protecting their autopoeisis; meaning simultaneously enables consciousness to understand itself and continue to affect itself in communication and enables communication to be referred back to consciousness of the participants. (21)
Thus, "meaning" is something different from "communication," communication is a specific instance of meaning. All "forms of meaning [. . .] operate by means of difference" (22). However, there is yet another distinction (and more) to be made: meaning and information.

Communication is  process of three selections: information (the 'content'), utterance (the specific, pragmatic communicative event, and understanding (a receiver's processing of the difference between information and utterance that completes the communicative act) (Wolfe 22). 


Within Luhmann's schema, it is important to realize that something can be meaningful without being information because in order for something to be information it has to be the 'first' time a receiver receives it--it cannot be repeated.

Some may think here--but wait! Is this not separating form and content? Is this not another way to say that a message "holds" information that it transfers or communicates? Yes and no. Wolfe brilliantly points out that,
while Derrida emphasizes the final undecidability of any signifying instance, Luhmann stresses that even so systems must decide they must selectively process the difference between information and utterance if they are to achieve adaptive resonance with their environment. (23)
Thus, the observer has to choose if it is information or not--he or she has to make a distinction. How many times have I read the text, "the medium is the message," a short snippet of Marshal Mcluhan, but within a certain context, I may find that the communication "means" more than it did before. Or, to take another example, I "read" the word "consensual domain" when I first read the Wolfe text, but because I had barely any background on Varela and Maturana (which was today provided by Hayles) I hardly realized its meaning--no understanding really took place. But now, because the "the state of the system" (the 'me' system I'll call it) has changed, something that may have been "meaningful" becomes information--understanding takes place. The form of the text did not change, but the system (the observer) has.

So we have several terms here.

System/Environment

System
       Psychic
           Consciousness

                                     Language

       Social
           Meaning
           Communication (Luhmann) Writing/Trace (Derrida)
                 1.) information
                 2.) utterance
                 3.) understanding

From what I can gather from the text, perception is, along with communication, a form of meaning--but this is not quite correct, since meaning is formed through difference and in that sense communication is not really a "form" of meaning.

According to Wolfe, "perception  (and beyond that, consciousness) and communication operate in mutually exclusive, operationally closed, autopoietic systems, though they are structurally coupled through media such as language" (231).

Here it appears that perception is linked to the "psychic system" and communication linked to the "social system." But then Wolfe writes, "At the same time, however, consciousness and perception are a medium for communication" (232).

Luhmann gets around this by claiming that there is asymmetrical relationship between the mind  and communication. Although the mind remains "invisible to communication" it is clear that "communication can hardly come into being without the participation of the mind" (232). That is, there is no "unperceived communication" and since communication is only a "functional" distinction made by an observer and not an ontological thing in itself, it needs a mind in order to communicate.

I still can't quite grasp what Wolfe/Luhmann mean by " 'the mind  has the privileged position of being able to disturb, stimulate, and irritate communication' " (339). It cannot instruct or direct communications--reports of perception are not perceptions themselves'--but they can 'stimulate communication without ever becoming communication' (379-80)" (Wolfe 232).

At first, I thought that this excluded animals from communication, but then I remembered that "mind" does not necessarily mean 'human mind' or 'consciousness' in any sort of phenomenological philosophical sense, but rather, just a perceiver, so that we can imagine an animal 'mind' stimulating communication too.

All of this brings me to the role of art that it plays in both Luhmann's theories and Wolfe's. How does art, thinking in Luhmann's terms, differ from 'writing' or 'communication'? It seems to be a mode of communication  as opposed to other modes of communication. Indeed, I think that we can safely say that art is not something that can be defined ontologically (in its being or its nature) and that art, like all other distinctions in systems theory, is a functional distinction: "Here we need to remind ourselves that questions of form are not questions of objects" (229).

Thus Wolfe phrases the question like this: "What is the relationship between discourse about art and the art object itself?"

We can find the answer by realizing that the work of art can form the question of whether a work of art is a 'work of art' as distinguished from all other 'natural' objects or discourse, but it cannot answer that question. Thus, the work of art  becomes a question: How is this a work of art? The artist, we may presume, as a first order observer says "This is a work of art," but that allows the "second order observer," the one who comes in and experiences the work of art to then to try and figure out its significance or its meaning:
For Luhmann, such questions index the situation of art as a social system under functionally differentiated modernity of art struggling to come to terms with its own raison d'etre--in systems theory terms, to achieve and justify its operational closure, or autonomy. (230, italics mine). 
Thus, art asks the question, as Wolfe does in a previous chapter, "what does art add?" (152). What justifies the art system?

For Wolfe the answer is that
the artwork copresents the dfference between perception and communication, and this difference is what allows art to have something like a privileged relationship to what is commonly invoked as the 'ineffable' or the 'incommunicable', and it uses perception to 'irritate' and stimulate communication to respond to the question 'what does this perceptual event mean? (Wolfe 233)
In Luhmann's words:
The function of art would then consist in integrating what is in principle incommunicable--namely, perception--into the communication network of society [. . .] communication guided by perception relaxes the structural coupling of consciousness and communication (without destroying it, of course). . .In a manner that is matched neither by thought nor communication, perception presents astonishment and recognition in a single instant. (Luhmann qtd. in Wolfe 233)
Art then, has a critical function in society because it forces us to pay attention to the meaning of the split between the 'real world' and the 'imaginary world'--a functional distinction that each work of art makes. In this way, so Wolfe and Luhmann claim, artworks "in calling our attention to the realm of the 'socially regulative,' cast light on precisely those contingencies, constructions, and norms that mass media, in their own specific mode of communication, occlude" (Wolfe 235). It thus allows us to deconstruct the constructions of reality provided by the mass media, perhaps, by offering a different construction of reality.

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