Thursday, November 28, 2002

On social systems and cybernetics

Thanks to Matt Webb for a definition of social systems taken from cybernetics. But I'd just like to point out that the cybernetics (including second-order cybernetics and notions of autopoesis) definition does not overcome the critique of structuralism/functionalism in sociology.

If you're interested in this critique, continue reading - if not, bail out now ;)

Niklas Luhmann’s autopoetic systems are self-governing spheres of interaction and “autonomous in the sense that external impacts are selected by the system or transformed by the field itself" and Luhmann employs an auditory metaphor, “resonance." Modern society is characterised by highly specialised, self-sustaining and prescriptive systems which serve identifiable social functions. For Luhmann, society is nothing but reflexive, self-recursive communication. The social still constitutes a whole, but one without centre or unity, where systems sit side-by-side, differentiated by function and stabilised communications.

The definition of society elaborated by Georges Bataille combines homogeneity with the notion of heterogeneity. For Bataille, heterogeneity comprises everything that homogeneity excludes or marginalizes. As Albertsen and Diken describe, “any heterogeneous social element is defined by its intensity and the affective reactions through which it breaks the laws of homogeneity, as in the cases of excess, delirium, madness and violence. But this is not all; elements that appear to be constitutive of homogeneity can also belong to heterogeneity… [and at the same time heterogeneity] is what escapes, or what flows in and through homogeneity.”

Zygmunt Bauman reiterates the importance of heterogeneity and also emphasises ambivalence. He locates ethics at the centre of social behaviour, but an organic ethics based on facing ambiguity and making moral choices, rather than one based on an external rule-set or system. In this way, Bauman (following Levinas) replaces the notion of society with one of sociality: the interpersonal negotiation of ambivalence and heterogeneity. He is concerned not with what holds us together (society) but with the morality that emerges in social interaction.

Bauman (following Georg Simmel) also invokes the concept of habitat. Away from society, and towards sociality, habitat is a complex system; the context in which agency operates. Habitat is where sociality takes place, a territory characterised by indeterminacy and ambivalence. Simmel’s stranger “comes today and stays tomorrow… [and is] an element whose membership within the group involves both being outside and confronting it.” Bauman uses the concept of the stranger to demonstrate that sociality consists of belonging to more than one category: always ambivalent, contingent, inconsistent and indeterminate. Neither fixed nor clearly bounded, sociality is hybrid and heterogeneous. Accordingly, for Bauman, the social can only define itself against its strangers.

The sociological critique continued with Actor-Network Theory (see posts on agency below) and most recently appears in social theories of fluidity and flow. The point has been to get away from notions of SOCIETY (systems and relationships) and move towards questions of SOCIALITY (practices and performances). An un-binding, if you will.

I guess part of my research is meant to see how these critiques can be applied to the design of new technologies - but it seems to be quite difficult to shift discussions of systems and relationships to practices and performances. I fear some consider it too subtle a point, and not worthy of rigorous examination...

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