Although he is not well known in American theoretical circles, the late German sociologist and systems theorist Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) is widely considered one of the most influential and controversial social theorists of the 20th century. While the classical social theories of Durkheim, Marx, Weber, et al have enjoyed much engagement from political theology, and though many of the major categories that Luhmann’s theory addresses are at the center of political theological debates, he remains conspicuously absent from mainstream conversations.
In this introduction, I suggest that political theology finds in Luhmann’s social systems theory an intensely abstract and productive method for answering questions of how it both legitimates itself as a system of knowledge and how it observes other social, political, economic, legal, and religious systems of meaning.
Luhmann’s remarkably consistent theoretical output over his three-decade spanning career and roughly seventy books was driven by a single formulation: society is a self-producing, “autopoietic” system of observation that is comprised not of human beings, but of communications that operate around the binary distinction between system and environment. One of Luhmann’s most controversial insights, and one that has produced much fodder for posthumanist theory, is that while human beings do provide society with “information,” they are not actually included within it but rather make up part of its environment.
However, counter-intuitive this might sound, one way to understand this distinction between human beings and society is by thinking it alongside Derrida’s famous deconstruction of the “auto-affection” of the voice-as-presence, or the valorization of speech over writing (as techne). As with deconstruction, Luhmann takes the side of the latter: society is a technological ecology of communications untethered from human consciousness, intention, and control.
For Luhmann, society produces communications through the “observation of observation,” a central theme in all his writings which is referred to as “second-order observation.” “Observation” should be understood here in the widest possible sense, and simply means the positing of distinctions. To observe is to make a distinction, and second-order observation refers to making distinctions about distinctions. Political decision making, social media, academic peer review, the New York Stock exchange, and theology are all examples of social devices that operate as second-order observation.
In Luhmann’s understanding of observation, there are a number of implications for how political theology, itself a form of second-order observation, might understand its own observation of observation. Following Luhmann, it is epistemology, not just political theology’s more familiar terrain of ontology, that re-emerges as a crucial frame for a coherent and unified account of society and its orders of knowledge and power, not as a substance that precedes observation but as an entity that emerges through it. While the Kantian search for the conditions of cognition certainly looms large in Luhmann, the difference is there is no transcendental structure and cognition is a purely functional (autopoietic) operation not reducible to human consciousness.
One of Luhmann’s most important insights for social theory is what he, drawing from Maturana and Varela, describes as social system’s “operational closure.” What a system can observe (about its environment and about itself) is wholly determined by the system’s own internally regulated and recursive codes and distinctions.
Operational closure, however, does not mean that social systems have no relation to their outside or that they are somehow cut off from what goes on in their environment. It is precisely operational closure that allows the system to remain open to its environment as it filters an infinitely complex and otherwise overwhelming set of elements through its specific operations.
For political theology, taking seriously its own operational closure forces it to confront both its contingency as a system of knowledge and its autonomy vis-à-vis its objects of observation that make up its environment. Like any other system, political theological observation is always based on the two-sided form system/environment (its “unity of distinction”), meaning that it has its own specific environment that is the self-referential product of the system. Furthermore, its observations are always based on a paradoxical identity between the two sides that unifies both necessity and contingency, the particular system and its infinite environment.
It is in this paradox that Luhmann refers to the “blind spot” of all observation: the system can never observe its own unity as it must necessarily stay on the “inside” of the system/environment distinction. To do otherwise, to dissolve the unity by crossing into the environment, would be to dissolve the very basis of its existence. While it can never observe its own foundational unity, it can “re-enter” the system/environment distinction back into the system, allowing it to incorporate into itself that which is excluded and thereby confront its own contingency against an infinite environment. However, the foundational unity of its own observation must remain “hidden” if the system is to continue in its operations.
Though no system can observe its own paradoxical unity, the blind spot of observation can be observed by an outside observer—another system with its own self-referential environment—that can distinguish the form as containing both sides. This is essentially what is happening when political theology observes the modern political system through its own codes of distinction. One could even say that modern (western) political theology begins with the observation of the paradox of the “secular” political system’s own distinction from theology, which, as an outside observer, political theology sees as always conditioned by the inclusion of the excluded.
For a well-known example, as political theology observes the unity of distinction between the western political system’s theologically inherited paradox of sovereignty and bare life, it becomes apparent that this distinction is always self-referentially posited on the side of sovereignty as it excludes that which forms its environment. In this second-order observation, political theology is able to observe how sovereignty is always based on the blind spot of its own constitution and therefore blind to its own contingency in the face of environmental complexity. Hence, as Derrida observes of Schmitt, the “madness” of the sovereign decision.
What Luhmann shows, however, is that the same kind of second-order observation, which is able to deconstruct the objects of political theology to great effect, can also be applied to political theological observation itself, which must also rely on its own paradoxes and blind spots. This is why political theology will always be subject to the counter-observations of other systems, who may be able to “see many more and quite different things that are not necessarily accessible to the system” (Luhmann, 2013, p. 57). Because of the blind spot of observation that arises in its own system/environment distinction, political theology (like every other system) must continuously confront its own contingency through further system complexification and increasingly reproduce the paradox of observation through more and more distinctions.
Keeping with our political theological example, the deconstruction of sovereignty (and not to mention other second-order observations regarding political legitimacy, economy, demonization, etc.) has fueled the production of an enormous amount of literature (“observations of observations”) that functions to sustain the political theological system’s autopoiesis through new distinctions and new possibilities through which the system reproduces itself. In this way, political theology’s own blind spot of observation, far from being a constraint, is actually the basis of its continuing productivity.
There is already much precedent for this kind of analysis within certain kinds of theology. Luhmann was particularly fascinated with the way that the Christian tradition of negative theology pushes the blind spot of cognition to its radical implications. As he compares modern forms of rational-based epistemology with the mystical tradition of medieval theologians such as John Scotus Eriugina (815-877 C.E.) and Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464 C.E.), he says, “no traditional epistemology could dare go this far—obviously because the position from which it would have had to deal with distinctions was occupied by theology” (Luhmann, 2006, p. 250).
Especially in Cusa, the idea that all observation is ultimately blind in relationship to the “oneness” of God’s absolute truth, that all particular perception ultimately falls short of the whole, is the foundation of a mystical theology of unknowing in which God remains beyond all cognition and earthly knowledge, which is to say, beyond all distinction. Luhmann’s systems theory is making a very similar point, although instead of God it is “reality” that remains inaccessible to observation.
The only way to observe reality, to observe God, is to “wound” its original unity through a distinction, meaning through the positing of a blind spot that ensures the whole will never be accessed. Of course, this is exactly where we—which is always a particular, differentiated, and never universalizable “we”— find ourselves, in a wounded world of difference unable to identify a beginning or end, like Emerson’s staircase. We would have no existence and no basis for experience without making distinctions against and about God-Reality, leaving us inescapably bound to our blind spots. Theology, or any other observational perspective, can only be a discipline of the fallen, inaugurated as an original act of what the Christian tradition would call “sin,” and which here we might neutralize by simply referring to it as “drawing a distinction.”
This is basically how Luhmann understood (and sympathized with) the Devil in Christian theology, the first “theologian” to make a distinction and thereby become differentiated from God. In this sense the Devil, a figure of significant importance for political theology, might also be construed as the first autopoietic system of observation. Once the distinction was made, once the circle had been drawn, the system formed its own operations to maintain the difference with its environment so as not to be dissolved into it.
Following in this original distinction, “the world” came into being as an ecology of the differentiated, forever alienating itself from God. After this “fall” from reality, the only thing left to do was to maintain the system distinction by building up inner complexity through further re-entries and distinctions that produced more and more differences and more and more circles of experience.
While there is much more to say regarding what this ecological framework of blind observation means for political theological reflection, particularly in terms of the possibility of justice-oriented interventions into society, and while there is much to say regarding Luhmann’s own political conclusions that often erred on the side of conservative reactionism, one of the lessons that political theology might take from Luhmann is that its own blind spots are simultaneously the source of the unique insights it can make about the world and its limitation in terms of the “truth” of those insights.
What Luhmann shows is that no theory (including Luhmann’s itself) can claim the final or definitive account of the truth of society, and that all theory is conditioned by a radical contingency and groundlessness where there can always be a different way of observing the world. Indeed, because this is the case, political theology continues to have a future in which it can make a difference.
Niklas Luhmann. Introduction to Systems Theory Malden: Polity Press, 2013.
Although there is no easy entry into Luhmann’s highly dense and abstract writing, this book, which is derived from a lecture course he gave at the University of Bielefeld in the early 1990s, is as close as he gets to a general and accessible introduction to the basic tenets of his systems theory.
Niklas Luhmann. A Systems Theory of Religion Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013
Luhmann wrote a great deal on the system of religion, a topic of obvious interest for political theology, and this book is a good place to start for understanding his approach to religion as a self-organizing system of communication. As one of the multiple sub-systems of a “functionally differentiated” modern world society, Luhmann theorizes religion as particularly adept at addressing the indeterminate and uncontrollable nature of the world through the code “immanence/transcendence.”
Niklas Luhmann, “How can the Mind participate in Communication?” in Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and K. Ludwig Pfieffer, Eds. Materialities of Communication Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.
This is a good essay for understanding Luhmann’s hard distinction between human beings, which he understands as a conglomeration of “psychic systems” (the mind) and multiple living systems (cells, nervous system, cardiovascular system, etc.), and social communication.
Luhmann, Niklas. “Cognition as Construction” in Hans-Georg Moeller, Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems Peru: Carus Publishing Company, 2006.
This essay is a good and relatively accessible entry into Luhmann’s epistemological program, clearly outlining his understanding of observation and the radical constructivism of all cognition. It can be found as an appendix to Hans-Georg Moeller’s Luhmann Explained: From Souls to System, which is one of the more helpful secondary introductions to Luhmann’s thought.