28 August 2006

Relations, Elements, Multiplicity

Having gotten past my recent embarrassing and indiscrete outburst, I've been thinking, once again, about the relationship between Luhmann and Badiou. Incidentally, is there anyone else in the world that actually reads Luhmann? Jodi recently mentioned that she studied under one of his students, but generally I find reference to Luhmann almost completely absent everwhere (there are a couple of references in Lyotard, and a few highly positive references in Negri and Hardt's Empire, but other than that it is as if he doesn't exist in the United States). I find myself completely astonished by this state of affairs, and almost feel a missionary zeal to encourage interest in his work, as it so nicely ties together other themes in contemporary political theory and social thought. Or perhaps I'm just missing something. At any rate, early in his discussion of systems, Luhmann observes that,
Elements can be counted and the number of positive mathematical relations among them can be determined on the basis of their number. The enumeration reduces the relations among the elements to a quantitative expression, however. The elements acquire quality only insofar as they are viewed relationally, and thus refer to one another. this can occur in real systems of a (relatively small) size only selectively, that is, only by omitting other equally conceivable relations. Thus quality is possible only through selection-- but selection is necessary because of complexity. (Social Systems, 21)
I have been harping on this point a good deal recently, but the degree to which Luhmann's account of systems is the mirror of Badiou's ontology is remarkable. Imagine a collection of points. Each point can be related to every other point, in a way that we can describe exhaustively using mathematical terms. However, when dealing with the composition of any actual situation, we have only selective relations among elements, never a situation in which all elements are related. Systematicity just is the manner in which relations of elements are regulated. In Badiou's terms, this would be described in terms of the re-presentation (State) and presentation of a situation. For Badiou, the elements composing a situation are always in excess how the state re-represents the situation.

From the standpoint of contemporary social theory, Luhmann's thesis about relations and elements will not come as a surprise. By now everyone is familiar with the idea that there are no elements independent of relations and that there are no relations independent of elements. Everyone is familiar with the idea that systems constitute their own elements or that there are no elements independent of contingent systems. Indeed, what Luhmann presents is a highly formal, highly abstract, account of what figures such as Althusser, Foucault, Butler, etc., are up to with their critiques of essentialism, naturalization, and humanism. For instance, what we examine when we examine a Foucaultian episteme or power structure is simply the way in which a particular contingent system constitutes its elements (social subjects) and selectively regulates relations among these elements. Similarly, theoretical bodies such as psychoanalysis or schizoanalysis could be thought as examining the mechanisms by which which structural coupling takes place between organic systems falling outside social systems (human bodies) and social systems that draw on these organic systems as matter for the production of social elements.

What I find particularly interesting in Luhmann-Badiou's approach, however, is this excess, this multiplicity, that perpetually seems to haunt the elements and relations constituting a system. The impression I've often gotten when reading Althusser, Foucault, or Butler is one of grim determinism, where my being as a social being is so thoroughly pervaded by relations of power or ideology, that any action I undertake is already undertaken in the name of that power or ideology (since I myself, as an element of the social system, am nothing but the manner in which I have been constituted as an element). That is, there is a certain inevitability to social relations as theorized by these thinkers that leaves little hope of change or escape. However, in indicating this excess of mathematically computable relations over selectively governed relations, Luhmann-Badiou alludes to a chaos that perpetually haunts any organization-- mirroring, perhaps, what Deleuze-Simondon refers to as the "preindividual" or the "singular" --which provides a source of change and resistance. It is this excess that we witness in moments of revolution, orgiastic celebration, mob outbreaks, etc. In all of these instances, selective relational organizations break down, and we encounter something like a swarm without identity (the uncountable, the without-distinguishing-feature). By emphasizing the element of excess over organization, one gets the sense that perhaps certain questions have been posed in the wrong way, that there has been too much focus on organization and structure rather than what oozes out from the edges of systematicity. Perhaps it is in thinking the exess of possible relations over actual relations, that something like an Enlightenment subject becomes possible, a subject described by Zizek, when remarking that,
The cogitois not a substantial entity but a pure structural function, an empty place (Lacan's $)-- as such, it can emerge only in the interstices of substantial communal systems. The link between the emergence of the cogito and the disintegration and loss of substantial communal identities is therefore inherent, and this holds even more for Spinoza than for Descartes: although Spinoza criticized the Cartesian cogito, he criticized it as a positive ontological entity-- but he implicitly fully endorsed it as the "position of the enunciated," the one which speaks from radical self-doubting, since even more than Descartes, Spinoza spoke from the interstices of the social space(s), neither a Jew nor a Christian... (The Parallax View, 9)
...But a void. What Spinoza (or Descartes) was able to see as a result of their unique experience was the excess of multiplicity-- multiplicity qua multiplicity --underlying any social organization, or the bubbling chaos beneath social organizations. Descartes experienced this as a result of his extensive travels and wanderings, while Spinoza experienced that as a result of being excluded from both the Jewish and Christian communities of Amsterdam. In occupying this position, both Descartes and Spinoza were able to see the ultimate contingency of how social elements and their relations are organized, and thereby experience themselves as a pure void. In this regard, the mistake of critiques of the subject such as those found in Althusser, Foucault, Deleuze, and Butler, is to suppose that it is a substantialist notion of the subject that is at stake in figures such as Descartes. These critiques end up replacing one substances (self-present res cogitans) with another substance-- social customs, habituations, language, power, intensities, etc. However, what is important in Enlightenment thinkers such as Descartes is not their substantialist conception of subjectivity, but precisely their insight into the subject as void, empty, in disjunction with any possible predicate with which it might occupy. Is it not precisely for this reason that the idea of multitudes as a break from all tradition was formulable only by the thinkers of the Enlightenment? Doesn't the critique of these thinkers as presupposing a substantial subject determined by culture essentially miss the point... That the subject of Enlightenment was always a homeless subject, a subject that had lost it's tradition and home through it's very tradition? Would not the goal of a renewed Enlightenment thought be to become "a-topos"?


Anonymous greg seigworth said...

Cary Wolfe writes quite a bit about Luhmann, plus D+G, Richard Rorty (even a smidge of Lacan) in his _Critical Environments: Postmodern Theory and the Pragmatics of the "Outside"_ (U of Minn Press: 1998). I read it at the time it came out, and remember very little (cognitive blindspots corrected by a theory of observation of observation?) except that it drove me up the wall.

August 29, 2006 3:54 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Thanks for the reference. Luhmann often characterizes his sociological work as "observing the observer" or observing how the observer draws distinctions and makes indications on the basis of these distinctions (arguing that no observation is possible without first drawing a distinction). I find this to be one of the less interesting aspects of his work.

August 29, 2006 6:05 AM  
Anonymous marcegoodman said...

Fredric Jameson invokes Luhmann briefly in Postmodernism and more extensively in A Singular Modernity.

August 31, 2006 12:34 AM  
Blogger Sinthome said...

Thanks for the references, Marc!

August 31, 2006 7:05 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home