Book review: Theories of Distinction

Mathieu Deflem

Published in American Journal of Sociology 108(5):1168-1170, March 2003.

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu. 2003. Review of 'Theories of Distinction: Redescribing the Descriptions of Modernity,' by Niklas Luhmann. American Journal of Sociology 108(5):1168-1170.

This collection of selected writings by the German social theorist Niklas Luhmann is one of now several in a series published by Stanford University Press. This volume is not a translation of a German original published during Luhmann's lifetime (Luhmann died on November 6, 1998). Instead it is a collection brought together by the editor, William Rasch, around the themes of modernity, observation, and communication. Rasch introduces the volume in a very dense and philosophical introduction that contemplates epistemological questions in Luhmann's oeuvre. It concludes by suggesting the Weberian rationality model as Luhmann's unacknowledged guide, although Luhmann himself explicitly rejected a comparison of his work to Weber's.

The first set of papers in this work concerns the state of modern science, especially the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl, which Luhmann reinterpreted in his familiar systems-theoretical model of autopoiesis. Intentionality, for instance, becomes the positing of a difference. Consciousness dehumanizedthat is Luhmann. Next, there are a number of essays on observing, most of which have already been published elsewhere. They repeat and clarify the paradoxes of observing (and self-observing). One of these papers includes Luhmann's musings on the work of Jacques Derrida and his notion of deconstruction. Luhmann playfully introduces this chapter by recounting how he watched on TV the debate in the United States on the admission of homosexuals into the army. Deconstruction can show, to Luhmann rightly, that the difference homosexual and heterosexual changes in its use value as it is employed in different contexts and at different times, but it is not possible, according to Luhmann, to ever overcome this heterogeneity of contextualized meanings. Deconstruction and postmodernism suggest we can, which "may appeal to the pragmatic sense of Americans" (p. 112). Elsewhere in the book, Luhmann comments favorably on Jean-François Lyotard's contention that there is no more unified narrative, but that each singular narrative produces its distinct difference. Luhmann, however, rejects the label "postmodern."

The next set of essays deals with the central concept of communication in Luhmann's work. Evidently sharing an interest with his main adversary, Jürgen Habermas, Luhmann conceived of communication in a very distinct way that established that "only communication can communicate" (p. 156). There is no subject. Communication comes about through the synthesis of information, utterance, and (mis)understanding. Systems of communication are closed and communications have no goal. Distinct systems of communication are not accessible to one another.

A final essay in this book is a coda on the Frankfurt school. Luhmann once quipped that the answers to the central questions of modernity were definitely not to be found in Frankfurt. In this essay, Luhmann further debunks the project of Frankfurt's critical theory. But Habermas has moved back to Starnberg. Luhmann, it seems, could never leave Frankfurt, or at least not forget his visit there during the Positivusmusstreit.

The connections between the various essays in this volume are at times loose and unclear. Some of the papers have been published before in other (English translations of) works of Luhmann and now appear in yet another context. I wonder if Luhmann would have approved of this collecting and recollecting of his writings. In any case, I find that of the various works by Niklas Luhmann that are now available in the English language this volume may well be the least useful for sociologists. That is not to say that the book has no merits. On the contrary, it clarifies to the specialist certain underlying epistemological concerns in Luhmann's work, especially with respect to the notions of observation and communication. But such efforts appeal to the philosopher of science more than to the student of society. Even seasoned theoretical sociologists may find this work not tremendously relevant. Luhmann has no U.S. interpreter within the discipline of sociology. Or perhaps Luhmanian theory is now a closed system with its own binary code. Yet, fortunately, we can also rely on the insightful and more accessible works of Luhmann's oeuvre, such as his books on art, intimacy, mass media, and law. I feel that the legacy of Luhmann's theoretical work in sociology, bringing out the relevance of his excursions for contemporary sociological theory and research, should be carefully guarded.