Lars Qvortrup
The Hypercomplex Society
Lang Publishing 2003


Medium, Form, and Meaning

... in the course of the twentieth century the distinction between substance and form was discussed from an increasing number of perspectives. Apparently, substance is not unambiguously substance, just as form is not always form, and as a result it is no longer possible to talk about substance or form "as such." The conclusion is that one cannot talk about the what-question (what is substance, what is form?) without raising the how-question, how, that is according to which criteria, is the distinction between substance and form made?.

But what then are we to do? How are we to define the categories of "substance" and "form," at the same time as we make it clear that they don't have universal status and are instead more dependent upon their mutual relation? Niklas Luhmann has suggested that one should distinguish between structures with relatively loose connections and structures with relatively strongly connected elements.

The first—the structure that is characterized by loosely coupled elements—can be called the "medium" (as an alternative to the term "substance," with its more universal associations). The second—the structure that is characterized by more strongly coupled elements—can be called "form." We see something—a form—through a medium, but the medium itself cannot be seen when we are looking through it. For example: We see an object through the light as its medium, we hear a sound through the air as its medium, we communicate through language as a medium. What we characterize as a sound (a tone, for example) is a strong coupling of the loosely coupled elements of air. Correspondingly, the trace of a footprint in damp sand is a fixing of previously loose sand. Different sounds are formed into words, which are the medium for poems, and so on.

Instead of "substance and form," we talk of "medium and form," and one of the advantages is that there isn't something that "in itself" is the medium or the form. We emancipate the concepts from their ontological burden. The medium is always the medium in relation to the form for which it is the medium, and correspondingly the form is always the form in relation to the medium on the basis of which it is form. The "medium" is therefore a general term for what we normally call substance. By giving the concept a different name, we avoid the concept of substance's ontological character (i.e., tbat "substance is substance" in a universal sense)... we see something—a form—through a medium. Sand for example is the medium for the footprint.

This distinction can be transferred to psychic and social systems, i.e., to the way in which we think and communicate. When we think and when we communicate, we do so through meaning. Consequently, using the concepts developed above, meaning is a common medium for society and the psyche. It is through meaning and through selection that we can create social and psychic forms. Or put differently: We communicate and we think through meaning as medium.

But at the same time, meaning is of course - as with all things - itself a form, and meaning's form is the separation between the actual and the potential, i.e., on the one hand what exists, what is possible, what lies within the actual horizon, and on the other hand what is not possible or visible, i.e., that which lies beyond the actual horizon. Meaning is, Luhmann says with an abstract concept, "the world's form."

But how does meaning come about? Where does it come from? Traditionally, many would use religious terms ("what is the meaning of life," one could ask, and Luhmann would translate the same question as, "what is the world's form?". If one wanted to translate the religious language into the medium-form terminology, one would say that God is the medium, and the form God "makes possible" is meaning. This form is the distinction between the transcendental and the secular. Perhaps one can also envisage how it is possible to acconnt for the function of religion in a hypercomplex society. It is not a universal point around which everything revolves, nor is it a universal cause. It is to have relationship to - to find concepts for - the relationship: with meaning as form, there exists something without a marking, something beyond meaning. It is this with which religion is concerned, often with paradoxical concepts such as life after death, or the meaningless meaning (Luhmann I996). If one chooses a less religious form of expression, one might say that meaning is a result of the evolution of society and the psyche. Meaning is, so to speak, what we can imagine, and to imagine something is precisely to bring firmly together what was loosely connected. Thus, meaning is both medium (the precondition for thinking and communicating) and form (our world horizon).

George Spencer Brown and the "Laws of Form"

Another mathematician from the twentieth century who aimed at developing a trans-Aristotelian logic was George Spencer Brown. He was born in 1923, and as a four-yearthe paradox. Some years after the publication of his work, Spencer Brown finished his university career and established the Sentinel Trust for Creative Education.

Laws of Form, translated into a number of languages (into German in a version in 1997 with a number of new introductions and appendices), has had a strange destiny. It had an obscure existence until the mid1980s, when it was discovered by NiLlas Luhmann, who gave it the status of the theoretical basis for systems theory. Since then it has left its mark on Luhmann's work and has also been the object of discussion and interpretation by others in the systems theory milieu, not least Luhmann's pupil Dirk Baecker, who in 1993 edited two volumes of articles with the titles Kalkül der Form and Probleme der Form (Baecker 1993)

The starting point in Laws of Form is that a universe arises when a space is created, i.e., a distinction is made. This is well known in narratives of creation: According to the scriptures, God created the heaven and the earth by making a difference between light and dark, and no sooner had he done this than he made his next distinction, when he separated the primordial ocean into heaven and sea, and again clove the sea into land and ocean. Not only is this the narrative of creation. It is also the suggestion for an epistemology that cannot start with an ontologically given thing (the atom or the commodity) or in a given transcendental ego, but must start in that which precedes form: distinction. Similarly, the story of creation is one long narrative of the application of distinction's logic, such that something arises when a distinction is drawn and a space is shaped by its opposing parts and when the categories that have arisen are again divided into new forms.

The basic implicit assertion in Spencer Brown's Laws of Form is that if we cannot take our starting point in the existence of something - for example, a common world - with ontological certainty, then we must start from what founds a world, namely that a distinction is drawn. Therefore the Bible's story of creation, i.e., the narrative of the world before the world, is introduced by making a difference: therefore, a theory of a society, which cannot be based on fixed assumptions, is introduced with the statement "Draw a distinction" (Brown 1971). With this opening distinction, a difference is made between an inner side and an outer side, a marked state and an unmarked state. Something is indicated by separating it from something that it is not. The traditional difference between whole and part is replaced by the distinction between system and environment, a distinction that can be repeated endlessly by system differentiations, in which the whole system uses itself in forming its own subsystems, thus "more rigorously filtering an ultimatively uncontrollable environment" (Luhmann I995). The practical outcome is a social reduction of risk by increasing internal complexity. The theoretical outcome is a theory of social systems as closed, that is, autopoietic, systems.

Of course, after the first distinction, one could remain in the inner side of the form. One can remain with the familiar, in the security that what one doesn't know isn't worth knowing. The distinction is narrowed into itself, it is "condensed," as Spencer Brown puts it, and the surrounding world is perceived as "the other," i.e. as the simple negation of "my" or "our" world. This represents the traditional society's image of the world: The world is confronted with what lies beyond it - civilization with the primitive, order with disorder, culture with nonculture. Upon such a foundation it is possible to construct something known as "our civilization," and to canonize it as given and collect it in normative schemes or as the single, true reason: the Western rationality, for example. Irrespective of whether the foundation is religious/ normative or rationalist, it represents a monocentric world picture.

But in a world that has become polycentric, it is not enough to remain in form's inner side. In a polycentric world, the same thing happens as for anthropologists when they in their studies of the "primitive'' realized that if one sat in the position of "the other," it was not difficult to imagine that these others felt confronted by a corresponding primitiveness, an otherness that was just as radical. Western culture can in other words be observed from the outside, as a foreign world, as an inverted primitiveness, and it can observe itself as such.

Instead of standing in one's own world as if it were the only world, one is thus forced to realize it as a marked space, and to cross the boundary between the marked and the unmarked space, between system and environment. Of course one cannot simply move, as we saw with the anthropologists, into the unmarked environment. One doesn't just shift standpoint or optic - what is called in anthropological fieldwork "to go bush," to become oneself "primitive" - but one is forced to observe one's own observation. In the theory of form, this is expressed in the manner that one doesn't just cross the boundary, but observes the form as the unity of the distinction between the marked and the unmarked state. By crossing the boundary of the known and recollecting the earlier condition, looking backward, one partakes of a second-order observation. One observes one's own observation. One recognizes that the certain knowledge, the familiar order—civilization, culture, the taken for granted—are not ontologically given, but could themselves also have been different.

It is first at this point, strictly speaking, that a world or a form is created: not just a difference between something and its negation, but a unity of difference. Indeed form is, as Spencor Brown has said, the unity of the distinction and its marked and unmarked sides. God created not just the earth, but heaven and earth; as Augustine already saw, God was interested not in the one or the other, but in the distinction.

Lastly, one can also take as the starting point the second-order observation. Thus the topic is the form of the unity of the marked and the unmarked. A second-order's observation also implies that there is another side: the second-order's observation's outer side. This outer side is comparable to the horizon of phenomenologists. It is the precondition for the formation of form. We have thus returned to our starting point, namely that no distinction can be made without, as Spencer Brown calls it, a preceding "motive": There must be a world before a world is first constituted. The known world, which is the result of an endless number of differentiations, of the crossing of boundaries and of the resulting self-observations, inscribes itself in itself, just as fractals do.

That the world as such is thus inscribed in itself is thus the hypercomplex society's answer to the traditional world's reliance upon God or destiny, or to modern society's reliance upon rationality and progress. In the Bible it is God who draws a distinction. In the hypercomplex societyis self-description, it is the inscription itself that makes a difference. God is replaced by the paradox, which reactualizes religion; not, however, as a potential for security, but rather a potential for insecurity (Luhmann 1992, p. 91, English translation, Luhmann 1998, p. 43), that is, as a semantics of the paradox. In a world where rationality was the monocentric answer to religious monocentrism, God appeared to be of no consequence, as a hypothesis of which we have no use in our rational account of the world, as Laplace put it. In the world, where paradox is the fundamental condition, paradox semantics, i.e., religion as reservoir of schemes for paradoxical interpretations, is of fundamental significance.

But shouldn't paradoxes be avoided? This was the view of classical logic, which Whitehead and Russell attempted to save, as already mentioned, with the argument that paradoxes are the result of category mistakes. To this it is Spencer Brown's assertion that the paradox is a condition for recognition, and that the answer of paradoxes is "deparadoxicalization, " for instance in the form of time. Things take time, just as the creation of the world took seven days, and it is this that makes it possible to cope with paradoxes. Not because "time" is an ontological precondition, but because "before" and "after" cannot be freely reversed. The marked and the unmarked state are different. It is thus only in a world without time, i.e., in the natural science of the classical world, that paradoxes couldn't be dealt with, because all natural processes per definition were reversible.