Luhmann, Scientific America, and whales doing fancy dives.

It also saddens me to know that some may rank my areas of research on the same levels of insanity as Tea Partiers and Rush Limbaugh’s Hu Jintao impression. Though, I am guilty of ranting, ask Stephany. My rants are often provoked by references to the news, for which most things research-related are presented as “discoveries.” (And that pisses me off.) Even my much beloved The Current and As it Happens sometimes get my goad (both are on CBC RadioOne in case you didn’t know, and if you didn’t, that pisses me off too). When I’m out having beers, its easy for me to fall into a joyous fit of ranting. I get frustrated, but love to discuss it. So I wanted to write a little piece explaining: a) why the rant, b) about what? As you all know by now, especially if your a close friend of mine (which you likely are if you’re reading this), I flirt with two of the most despised academic fields in Canada: continental philosophy and what in North America we broadly call theory. I may have called them one field, but the distinctions and monikers themselves are, well, undecidable. What ever you call them, some folks, without really having seriously encountered these ways of thinking, hate them. They hate them for being: Elitist, ignorant, rash, obscurest, fluffy, exclusive. Isn’t that hurtful?

In a time when academics in general are taking shit and being shit on by conservatives and socialists alike, it saddens me that during his acceptance speech, even the new President of Trent University, where I did my Master’s Degree, chose to blame the deferred progress and success of the school on “post-structuralism.” It’s like everyone has suddenly turned into Camille Paglia (who also recently took some more time to badmouth the “theory”-influenced humanities on TVO’s Big Ideas). 

A Rant is Conceived in a Particular and Complex Combination of System Functions. Scientific America just posted a piece covering an upcoming article in Nature. Scientific America is kind of the everyday man’s version of Nature. (Secret: I read Scientific America because graphs confuse me.) SciAm’s article, written by Katherine Harmon, was called “Can ecological models explain global financial markets–and make them more stable?” The Nature article is written by Bank of England’s Andrew Haldane and Oxford University’s Zoology Department’s Robert May, but translated by Harmon so I can understand it.

Their bold statement: Haldane and May are claiming that research in biological systems might improve the stability of economic systems because the kinds of things that disrupt economic systems are analogous to those that disrupt biological systems. This is an interesting and short article, and you should all read it. (I cited some passages below.)

The economy certainly is a big topic these days and so are the successes and failures of biological systems. So, its not a surprise that this article was written now.

The Rant enters its Embryonic State: But what most of us will take away from this article was being discussed by systems theorists for the last 20-30 years. In particular, I’m thinking of the German theorist of social systems Niklas Luhmann (who has found some notoriety for also debating against Habermas. Who won? No one ever really wins in public debates). In 2002, William Rasch edited and introduced a collection of Luhmann’s essays in English translation called Theories of Distinction. In his introduction “The Self-Positing Society”, Wasch gives a concise background to the study of complex systems as practised by Luhmann (with an emphasis on notions of self-positing). But don’t let the word “concise” fool you. You’ll have to work for the reward. It is from that Introduction that I translate for you what follows.

For Luhmann analyzing a system begins by making a distinction. Lets do two things to illustrate an example of this starting point. Let’s draw a circle, and lets consider economics. Those are two distinctions. A distinction marks off what is the system (the circle; the economic system) from a more complex background (a book of blank pages with other things written on them; the social system).

We then start making more and more distinctions in order to explore the system in greater detail: we look at the characteristics of the circle, and we look at what does and does not concern profit. Strangely, as we make more distinctions, we also notice that our system begins to look less chaotic.

We notice that the system complexity is reduced compared to its background, it has an emergent order. (Think of the sailboat scenes in mall rats. Once you can see the boat it is clear as day, but before that, the photo is a frantic mess.)

This reduced complexity also relates to a system’s self-reference. Systems are kind of egotistical. If it doesn’t concern the system, the system doesn’t care about it. (The system of your car’s engine doesn’t care how your day went.) In economics, if it’s not about capital, the economic system doesn’t give a damn. Those other things are in the background, remember. But a system can talk about those outside things, but it can only do so in its own internal terms. It has to bring those things into itself in order to discuss and observe them.

Let’s get more complex than a circle.

The Rant Searches for Energy to Recreate Itself and Persist:

Now, lets go for the direct structural and analogical comparison between biological and economic systems made in SciAm.

Recall systems are distinct and self-referential. So there are huge distinctions between the biological and economic systems: something in the biological system, like a whale, can’t very well become part of an economic system. What characterizes a whale in a biological system does not function within an economic system. The whale can only be a product, resource, or asset in an economic system; it cannot just squeak, eat krill, and do fancy dives (alas).

Here is an interesting and easy to understand lecture on natural complex systems by Seth Bullock, University of Southampton.

So far, we know that the two system are the result of distinctions and that they each concern themselves (or self-posit). One other thing that defines a system is activity. A system must have activity or movement throughout it. In other words, it must function. They are dynamic. They change and require energy. This means taking things from its environment into the system to energize it. In order for this to happen, though, there must be a place in that system that allows for transformation, a place of system disequilibrium. Why?

Take a balloon and consider the air inside it as a physically closed system. No air can get in or out. This system is pretty boring, pretty much at equilibrium. But what can create a little disequilibrium, whether internal or external to the system, can also transform the system. Say the balloon gets to close to a lamp (external influence) and the air within the balloon (the system itself) heats up and expands, hot air, like boiling water become tremulous and now you’ve got a system that, while still closed, is very active.

All system’s require a principle of novelty, that little bit of wiggle-room for change in a system, in order for change activity. (If you cram too many clowns in a clown car, no one can move and all the clowns… die.) For some philosophers like Derrida and Levinas, something like these gaps or spaces, these openings, are condition for “futurity”: how temporality occurs and time passes (though of course it isn’t exactly like this so don’t write me a hate letter about it, you know who you are). Another way to think about it is like this: disequilibrium is necessary for a system to maintain itself, to be active and reproduce itself, it must always be fighting against the second law of thermodynamics:

The second law of thermodynamics is an expression of the tendency that over time, differences in temperature, pressure, and chemical potential equilibrate in an isolated physical system.” Thank you Wikipedia of January 19, 2010 at 9:26:23PM.

Equilibrium is bad for systems because it means no activity. So stability is good, but too much stability is bad. When a biological system has reached an equilibrium it means its dead, and decomposed. When an economic system reaches an equilibrium it dies too, like when a whole bunch of banks sell the same cheap mortgages using the same techniques, all with the same safeguards, this amounts to a kind of dead zone in the system. But if something occurs that activates that system again, something that no one expected, that little function of the system that no one was watching, you get unexpected systemic hiccups, and maybe a catastrophe.

The balloon breaks.

The Rant Reaches a Critical State:

When theorists studies systems in this manner we don’t think about people, choices, etc., like other forms of theory may. (If you want those things you’ll have to find another theory.) Luhmann thinks about these activities functionally. The death of a human body, the collapse and equilibrium of a biological system, therefore, has an analogous relationship to a species’ extinction, just at a different level of the system; functionally they have similar mechanisms. Analogical or even homologous functions can exist between different systems altogether. For example, the way a wrist and a door hinge function have a broad analogical relationship, but are in completely different systems.

The wrist is, starting from broadest to more differentiated systems, within a biological system, an organism and skeletal sub-system; and the hinge is in a physical system, a scientific and engineering sub-system. Yet, they have basic functions that are analogous.

So of you who studies systems theory will likely be irritated. This is by no means anywhere near the whole story of Luhmann’s position of systems. But, now that we spoken about these very basic elements, let’s look at a few passages from the SciAm article a little closer:

When a biological or social system is full of uniform individuals—be they bean plants or banks—one shared weakness can spell disaster for the whole lot. Even when a new beneficial trait or tool enters the picture, if all organisms adopt it, as many financial institutions did with credit default swaps and other risky trades that led to the financial meltdown of 2007-08, a tenuous balance can be quickly upset, argued an economist and an ecologist in a new essay.”

And rather than regulating with the aim of individual institution stability, Haldane and May noted, attention should be tuned to the overall system’s risk.”

One way to combat this issue is to establish more self-contained ‘nodes’ as has been employed in forest management and even computer networks, so that if one element takes a hit, it doesn’t take down the entire system.”

A thoroughly interconnected food—or financial—web might provide the illusion of security, as ‘high connectivity distributes, and thereby attenuates risk.’ But as the authors pointed out, when a shock does hit the system, it will affect more institutions.”

Can you see now why I rant when I hear at the pub that “a banker and biologist just wrote about how ecological systems models might help with risk in the economic system”. And, “isn’t that cool” or “innovative.”

Sure,” I say, “but you know (I’m channelling my friend Jacob here, who says it just right),this isn’t really that new, is it.

And as the italics in my voice increase, the rant emerges distinctly.

Hasn’t any one ever heard of systems theory! My God! Mathematicians have always known about this! Ian Malcolm from Jurassic Park knew systems theory! People have been writing about Niklas Luhmann for years! You know what the problem is…”

The Rant, Loosing Energy, Reaches an Equilibrium, Apologizes for Talking so Long, and Takes Another Sip of Beer:

And that is why I rant. It’s not that I think that everyone should read philosophy (though I secretly do). Or that they’re assholes for not liking it (though secretly I think that too). It’s that, snuff, I wish that politicians and journalists would stop calling us useless, just because we’ve already moved on to other projects.




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