Month: December 2015

Heinz von Foerster

Heinz von Foerster was born in Vienna in 1911 to an affluent family (his mother was an artist and his father an engineer) that counted Wittgenstein among their circle. He took a doctorate in physics and from 1939 he worked for GEMA in Berlin on short-wave and plasma research which was considered important for the war effort. In that way he was able to avoid military service and to maintain employment despite being unable to prove ‘Aryan’ descent (the Nazi system would have classified him as ‘Mischling zweiten Grades’, or half-cast grade 2). He worked in Austria for a time after the war before emigrating to the United States. He took a position in the University of Illinois in 1949 and became professor of electrical engineering there in 1951. He is considered one of the father of cybernetics and was a founder member of the Biological Computer Laboratory (BCL) (University of Illinois 1957). The BCL became a centre of excellence for cybernetics and cognitive sciences. It is thought that many of the problems experienced by the …

Structural Coupling

This is another concept derived from Humberto Maturana. It is probably most simply understood initially in terms of two functional sub-systems who come to rely on each other for certain inputs. The unusual choice of image accompanying this piece is intended to convey the ongoing independence of each system. In no sense do the systems ‘merge’, nor does one become subordinate to the other. Luhmann gives the example of the structural coupling between the media and politics: ‘Politics benefits from “mentions” in the media and is simultaneously irritated by them. News reports in the media usually demand a response within the political system, and this response generally reappears in the media as commentary. So to a large extent the same communications have at once a political and a mass media relevance. But that only ever applies to isolated events and only ad hoc. This is because the further processing of communications takes a quite different route in the political system, especially where conditions of democracy and of opposition in the form of parties exist, from …

Operational Closure

Writers often use the example of the brain to illustrate the concept of operational closure. Luhmann provides the example of consciousness. Consciousness is a closed system that operates only internally, something we should be grateful for because ‘…it would be terrible if someone could enter someone else’s consciousness and inject a few thoughts or a few perceptions of his own into it’. Explaining how to understand operational closure in the context of social systems, Luhmann reminds us that the system is not to be understood as an ‘entity’, as a ‘unity’, but rather as a difference. The system is the difference between the system itself and its environment. Therefore, the question becomes who is drawing this distinction?  ‘The distinction between system and environment is produced by the system itself. … [T]he important issue consists in the fact that the system draws its own boundaries by means of its own operations, that it thereby distinguishes itself from its environment, and that only then and in this manner can it be observed as a system.’ Operations within …

Self-Reference

Self-reference is closely connected to ideas of self-organisation and autopoiesis. The concept is detached from notions of consciousness or the subject. Self-reference is a multi-faceted concept but in a brief introduction we can note that for modern functions systems – law, politics, science – understood as autopoietic and operationally closed systems, there is no recourse to ‘an all-embracing world system, no ultimate world guarantee of rationality’. Accordingly, the system must operate in a self referential way, returning recursively to its own previous operations in the process of producing new operations: ‘The system itself produces and observes the difference between system and environment. It produces it by operating. It observes it in that this operation in the context of the system’s autopoiesis requires a distinction to be drawn between self-reference and other-reference, which can then be ‘objectivized’ to a distinction between system and environment. The system can as always connect its own operations only to its own operations, but it can obtain directive information either from itself or its environment. There can be no doubt that …