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Observing Complexity

Observing Complexity: Systems Theory and Postmodernity

William Rasch
Gary Wolfe
Copyright Date: 2000
Edition: NED - New edition
Pages: 316
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  • Book Info
    Observing Complexity
    Book Description:

    Brings the major concepts and foremost thinkers of systems theory into interaction with the major figures of postmodern theory. The format is multiplex and open-a rich montage, including interviews, exemplary essays, and staged dialogues. Contributors: Drucilla Cornell, Jonathan Elmer, N. Katherine Hayles, Peter Uwe Hohendahl, Eva Knodt, Marjorie Levinson, Niklas Luhmann, and Brian Massumi.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-5291-4
    Subjects: General Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction: Systems Theory and the Politics of Postmodernity
    (pp. 1-32)
    William Rasch and Cary Wolfe

    In 1944 Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno attempted to come to terms with the disaster that had befallen mid-century Europe by posing a seemingly insoluble problem. “The dilemma that faced us in our work,” they wrote in their introduction toDialectic of Enlightenment, “proved to be the first phenomenon for investigation: the self-destruction of the Enlightenment.” The dramatic self-immolation of Western culture, represented for them not only by the brutalities of German fascism but also by the relentless instrumentalism of both Soviet Marxism and American consumerism, did not, they assured their readers, turn them into enemies of reason. On...


    • 1. Why Does Society Describe Itself as Postmodern?
      (pp. 35-50)
      Niklas Luhmann

      The discussion about modern or postmodern society operates on the semantic level. In it, we find many references to itself, many descriptions of descriptions, but hardly any attempt to take realities into account on the operational and structural level of social communications. Were we to care for realities, we would not see any sharp break between a modern and a postmodern society. For centuries we have had a monetary economy and we still have it. Perhaps there are signs that indicate a new centrality of financial markets, of banks and of portfolio strategies, that marginalize money spent for investment and...

    • 2. No Exit? (Response to Luhmann)
      (pp. 51-56)
      Peter Uwe Hohendahl

      It is not clear to me whether Niklas Luhmann’s essay “Why Does Society Describe Itself as Postmodern?” has a message, yet there appears to be a thesis, which is articulated at the end. This thesis relies on the distinction between simple observation and second-order observation. Hence the answer to the paper’s initial question of whether our society is a modern or a postmodern one is moved to a higher level: the distinction between a modern and a postmodern society or between modernity and postmodernity is a scheme to organize second-order descriptions. Whether we describe our present condition as modern or...

    • 3. Pre- and Post-Dialectical Materialisms: Modeling Praxis without Subjects and Objects
      (pp. 57-72)
      Marjorie Levinson

      I begin with three quotations, serving as something between topic sentences and course headings.¹ One is from Marx, the other two from the more recent tradition of materialist social thought. Together, they highlight what I see as some general interests and aims governing the effort on the part of today’s radical thinkers to reconceive both the practical and the categorical relations between culture and nature, the human and the nonhuman, the biological and the mechanical. These statements should also help to distinguish that project from the ecological critiques of industrial and postindustrial capitalism that develop from a conservative humanist position....

    • 4. Immanent Systems, Transcendental Temptations, and the Limits of Ethics
      (pp. 73-98)
      William Rasch

      Perhaps modernity—as the name given to an obsessive process of self-description—should describe itself yet again as a force field of competing anxieties. We have become distinctly suspicious of transcendental attempts to construct inviolate and panoramic levels of vision labeled God, Reason, or Truth. Yet, because of political or moral commitments, we are equally disinclined to relinquish “critical” perspectives from which we presume not only to see the world as it is, but also to utter judgments about its inadequacies. From their mid-century vantage point, Horkheimer and Adorno found themselves uneasily negotiating this terrain. According to them, the “pure...

    • 5. Rethinking the Beyond within the Real (Response to Rasch)
      (pp. 99-108)
      Drucilla Cornell

      I want to thank William Rasch for providing me with the opportunity to respond to his thoughtful paper. I will proceed as follows: First, I will discuss the meaning I give to the wordethical, particularly as I use it to describe my own feminism as ethical feminism. Second, I will seek to clarify my own understanding of the “limit” as it challenges the traditional divide between immanence and transcendence. Third, I will return to my understanding of justice as the limit, specifically as this informs my analysis of Justice Blackmun’s opinion inRoe v. Wade

      My use of the...


    • 6. Theory of a Different Order: A Conversation with Katherine Hayles and Niklas Luhmann
      (pp. 111-136)
      Niklas Luhmann, N. Katherine Hayles, William Rasch, Eva Knodt and Cary Wolfe

      This discussion was conducted September 21, 1994, at the Institute for Advanced Study at Indiana University, Bloomington, where Niklas Luhmann was a guest Fellow for two weeks. Both Luhmann and N. Katherine Hayles were participating in a conference at the university later that week, organized by William Rasch and Eva Knodt, entitled “Systems Theory and the Postmodern Condition.” As a basis for discussion and exchange, before the interview Hayles was given a copy of Luhmann’s essay “The Cognitive Program of Constructivism and a Reality That Remains Unknown,” and Luhmann was provided with a copy of Hayles’s “Constrained Constructivism: Locating Scientific...

    • 7. Making the Cut: The Interplay of Narrative and System, or What Systems Theory Can’t See
      (pp. 137-162)
      N. Katherine Hayles

      The originary moment for the creation of a system, according to Niklas Luhmann, comes when an observer makes a cut (“Cognitive Program”). Before the cut—before any cut—is made, only an undifferentiated complexity exists, impossible to comprehend in its noisy multifariousness. Imagine a child at the moment of birth, assaulted by a cacophony of noise, light, smells, and pressures, with few if any distinctions to guide her through this riot of information. The cut helps to tame the noise of the world by introducing a distinction, which can be understood in its elemental sense as a form, a boundary...

    • 8. In Search of Posthumanist Theory: The Second-Order Cybernetics of Maturana and Varela
      (pp. 163-196)
      Cary Wolfe

      In the current social and critical moment, no project is more overdue than the articulation of a posthumanist theoretical framework for a politics and ethics not grounded in the Enlightenment ideal of “Man.” In what is called (for better or worse) postmodern theory, that humanist ideal is critiqued most forcefully, of course, by the early and middle Foucault, whose “genealogical” aim is to “account for the constitution of knowledges, discourses, domains of objects, etc., without having to make reference to a subject which is either transcendental in relation to the field of events or runs in empty sameness throughout the...


    • 9. The Limit of Modernity: Luhmann and Lyotard on Exclusion
      (pp. 199-214)
      William Rasch

      Jean-François Lyotard’sThe Postmodern Conditionis a deeply divided work. On the one hand, it ceremoniously rejects the so-called Enlightenment projects of modernity, the metanarratives, as the famous phrase has it, of emancipation and knowledge. Thus, the condition labeled “postmodern” paradoxically recognizes the fact that no great alternative, no absolute knowledge or historical subject is waiting in the eschatological wings to transform modernity into its utopic other. On the other hand, however, this recognition does not transform Lyotard into a champion of the modernization process or an apologist for the “system.” Like Horkheimer and Adorno, whose analyses of the inescapable...

    • 10. Blinded Me with Science: Motifs of Observation and Temporality in Lacan and Luhmann
      (pp. 215-246)
      Jonathan Elmer

      In taking up the topic of cybernetics in 1955, a field then exerting influence on everything from telecommunications to public health management (see Heims), Jacques Lacan proposed the rubric of “conjectural sciences” for all those sciences of combination, where “[w]hat’s at issue is the place, and what does or doesn’t come to fill it, something then which is strictly equivalent to its own inexistence” (Seminar II299). This “science of the combination of places as such” is, to be sure, distinct from the exact sciences, which always focus on “what is found at the same place” (299). The exact sciences,...

    • 11. Making Contingency Safe for Liberalism: The Pragmatics of Epistemology in Rorty and Luhmann
      (pp. 247-272)
      Cary Wolfe

      What must immediately surprise any reader new to the discourses of systems theory or what is sometimes called “second-order cybernetics” is the rather systematic reliance of this new theoretical paradigm on the figure of vision and, more specifically, observation. That surprise might turn into discomfort if not alarm for readers in the humanities who cut their teeth on the critical genealogy of vision and the Look, which runs, in its modernist incarnation, from Freud’s discourse on vision inCivilization and Its Discontentsthrough Sartre’sBeing and Nothingnessto Lacan’s seminars and finally to recent influential work in psychoanalysis and feminist...

    • 12. The Autonomy of Affect
      (pp. 273-298)
      Brian Massumi

      A man builds a snowman on his roof garden. It starts to melt in the afternoon sun. He watches. After a time, he takes the snowman to the cool of the mountains, where it stops melting. He bids it good-bye, and leaves.

      Just images, no words, very simple. It was a story depicted in a short film shown on German TV as a fill-in between programs. The film drew complaints from parents reporting that their children had been frightened. That drew the attention of a team of researchers. Their study was notable for failing to find much of what it...

  8. Contributors
    (pp. 299-300)
  9. Permissions
    (pp. 301-302)
  10. Index
    (pp. 303-308)