charles manson: freedom fighter or violent non-state actor?
terrorism as surreality
(a critique of (modern) differentiated systems of communication)
you can't communicate with words. only with actions.
- charles manson
Functionally, regarding terrorism as a system of communication, Niklas Luhmann’s theory dispenses with certain otherwise (possibly) shocking elements, such as that terrorism contains “an expressive element[,]” takes place quintessentially “in the battlefield of the media[,]” and most shockingly of all perhaps, that penultimate paradox, the terrorist/freedom fighter distinction – which Luhmann might have casually dismissed with the observation that terrorism is not “a fact existing independently of whether and by whom it is observed.” Such a sociological (scientific) description of the terror system, as any other external description, cannot hope to answer the problems of society that allow the particular subsystem to function as a closed and self-generating system of communication, or to answer those questions posed within the “positive code value” of the system itself; after all, “the function of law is not simply being legal.” Similarly to Luhmann’s description of the art system, sociology here “aims at the ‘other side’ of the distinction that [the system] introduces into the world. The question might be rephrased as follows: How does reality appear when there is [terror]?”
One answer of course is that states may seek to communicate using the same methods, by resorting to the same communication techniques as the terrorists. To borrow a description from the art/entertainment system(s) of one Israeli counter-terror response to the 1972 Munich massacre, if “[n]o one notices a shooting[,] bombs achieve a double objective – they eliminate targets and they terrify terrorists.” This may even provoke a “dialogue” between the two sides, an exchange of letters through the mail, only containing explosives instead of written words. Nonetheless, according to the theory under discussion, both the ordinary and the explosive type of mail are possible forms of information, or at the least, utterance.
This notion of utterance as a performative component of the communicative event is crucial here, yet complex and potentially controversial. Like modern art, any communication of the terror system itself always comes close to being nothing more than an utterance, stating simply “I am terrorism!” at the top of its lungs. The nature of the system’s coding, it is argued, may be essentially inflationary or attention-seeking (even more so perhaps than other subsystems one could argue) and closely tied to this idea of utterance as the active or performative component. Communication may fail when there is no understanding, which might be equivalent in the case of terrorism to an attack that goes unnoticed, or relegated to the back pages. Terrorism, no matter how one ultimately chooses to define it, has always been about getting attention.
Those terrorist acts relegated to the back pages may be coded in the system of terror, i.e. be observed by the terrorists or possibly the flipside of this distinction in the communicative operations of law enforcement or counter-terror agencies, but these communicative events which go largely unnoticed will not structurally couple with society or its other subsystems to the same degree. So for example, one of the first attacks by the terrorist doomsday cult Aum Shinrikyo remained unknown as such an event until well after the fact, because it was first blamed on a hapless gardener. The coding of the system, how it chooses what to include or exclude as part of the positive value of its internal binary code (or paradox), could be expressed as more/less terror or even in the context of structural coupling with law enforcement or politics as terror/anti-terror – law enforcement may completely abort such events through public tips, clever interdiction or undercover operations, rendering such would-be terror events to “mostly untold stories” so far as society is concerned. Like art and the mass media, terrorism must constantly innovate in order to avoid redundancy and increase structural coupling with the intended audience:
[T]he terrorist act by itself is next to nothing, whereas publicity is all. But the media, constantly in need of diversity and new angles, make fickle friends. Terrorists will always have to be innovative. They are, in some respects, the superentertainers of our time. . . . The real danger facing the terrorist is that of being ignored[.]
From this point, it is essential to see that terrorism, whatever its definition, is a system of communication, existing within the environment of society, which is also a system of communication – systems here within systems. From this position, it could further be argued that terrorism itself has become its own self-generating and closed system within society, a subsystem comprised of “violence as communication[.]” From this context, it is possible to observe why society has such difficulty defining terrorism. One can see similar complexity of first- and second-order observations of other societal subsystems. Artists have their own ideas about the definition of art, yet communication not within the frame remains external to system, so to speak. Second-order observers of the art subsystem – critics, academics, or the media – present other communications within the “horizon” of the medium of meaning. The legal system, to cite another example, similarly presents difficulties in a precise definition and notably produces much communication in an effort to understand exactly what it is that lawyers do.
Perhaps these definitions seem less important because there is a seemingly endless temporal space in which these meanings unfold, for art, law or other subsystems functioning within society. Terrorism unfortunately presents a potentially infinite series of paradoxically final events, as generally resulting in death (at least for some), the ultimate curtailment of further discussion. Thus, one might say that a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations appears a disadvantage to our finite and fragile psychic systems, despite such variety being a hallmark of operatively closed systems of communication according to Luhmann. Ultimately, these definitions or descriptions come to rest on a paradox or a tautology or a binary code. For terrorism, despite our best efforts to define it, this could mean simply, “terrorism is terrorism.” Obviously, for some this may be difficult to accept. Yet, one of the foundational aspects of Luhmann’s theory is that “the world (as the horizon of possible descriptions) is expressed by means of a network of contingent distinctions and labels that always have to be understood in context.”
Using Luhmann’s model, this uncertainty and unpredictability (or context) can be more easily (though paradoxically not without some difficulty of course) incorporated in our description. Recent developments or even classic descriptions in the theory of terrorism can (possibly) be seen in a new light. Though it is noted that some contemporary political science and legal theorists are veering away from focusing solely on terrorists (those who primarily use violence as communication) and settling instead upon the antiseptic yet “broad [and allegedly] more useful” term of Violent Non-State Actor (VNSA), from a Luhmannian perspective, these events are not solely considered from the vantage of the state or political/legal subsystems, but also from the position of global society; the problems of society under discussion herein ultimately take the form of communicative events, and are thus often distinguished from the mere criminal acts (which may or may not be communicative in nature) of cartels, insurgencies, or even the dread “insurgency plus[.]”
Though criminals and warlords may on occasion conduct operations of terrorist communication or violence as communication, and obviously present a particular functional problem for society, states or related political and legal discourse (the so-called political/legal system(s), or “the state,” as it could be called), such non-state actors usually do not primarily function in this way unless directly threatened or else functioning in part through direct coupling/communication with society (as in the case of ISIS, for example). Thus, it is argued here that the VNSA model serves to highlight the influence (or lack) of state authority as a primary measure or influence on terror or other non-state violent actors; it is further argued that a group approaching the authority or power of an actual state, even without the precise legal designation, would be less inclined to use terrorist communication, as such utterances would “draw attention to [the group’s] increasingly lucrative activities with high-profile violence.” ISIS may be a clear exception (or modification) to this rule, yet again the apocalyptic ideology of the group and the general unpredictability of the evolution of the system should be emphasized. Most importantly, Luhmann’s model of society suggests first that it is misleading to describe any single subsystem as controlling society. The VNSA model emphasizes a political distinction (state or non-state), when in fact the theory under discussion here holds that the political (despite its own claims or self-descriptions to the contrary) does not control or direct (the communication that comprises) society any more than other subsystems such as “art . . . science . . . and so on[.]”
So for example, according to the theory, one might accept that a terrorist could just as easily arise from the social art system as the political, Charles Manson and his Family being perhaps a step in this direction, as much “inspired by the [Beatles] song ‘Piggies’” as by radical politics or religion. Admittedly, The Beatles never directly advocated sticking a fork into human beings, though Piggies comes fairly close as songs go. Later, Paul McCartney would state that Helter Skelter was at least about “the rise and fall of the Roman Empire[.]” Judging by the legal verdict alone, Vincent Bugliosi made a fairly convincing case for the structural coupling between The White Album and the Tate-Labianca murders. At least, one might argue that the sociological observation is fairly convincing of a structural coupling between the Manson Family and The Beatles. Of course, this is not an argument for causation, and these social connections appear to have been decidedly one way until after the Family’s terrorist activities came to light.
Such an acceptance of ambiguity (a byproduct of any ongoing autopoietic (self-generating) process or description) could upset many in the field of terrorism studies, and could irritate (or even possibly inform!) policy makers, pundits or even academics that would like to cling to their own particular vision of what terrorism must be. It seems at times that there is rather an ongoing feud between the legal and the political about which subsystem has ownership of terrorism. When it suits a particular context, a subsystem might seem eager to fob off terror as a religious problem. The argument presented here is that terrorism is a creature that may equally couple (structurally) with the art or even the entertainment (media) system(s). Especially from this point of vantage, one can sense a certain desperation on the part of theorists to define terrorism, which (it has been claimed) “in the post-9/11 world . . . is deployed in a wholly inappropriate manner by states, the media, publics and academics.” Luhmann’s approach strikes a different pose, and frees theory from this desire to control the text of society, and shows that any of our definitions may be nothing more than momentary (even fleeting) descriptions of ever-evolving systems of communication.
In sum, though military (and possibly political) or criminal (illegal) force may occasionally be utilized to telegraph power, i.e. communicate, the terrorist regularly or essentially communicates directly with society or its subsystems through violent performances, or utterances. The terrorist system codes violent events as communicative when the act is successful (gains more attention) with an audience in society, whether or not specific subsystems such as law or politics define it as such. Still, if the terrorist event falls in the woods with no one to hear it, there has been no communicative event. So for example, one might consider the aforementioned Matsumoto attack by Aum Shinrikyo, or the murder of Gary Hinman, one of the Manson Family’s first victims, in this context. One might also say that states seeking to downplay any complicity in terror cannot be painted with (exactly) the same brush as terror (or “guerrilla”) events where publicity is actively courted. Yet according to the theory, the terrorist/freedom-fighter paradox (or distinction) is actively contained within the terror system, as in the similar legal system paradox that “legal and illegal are the same[.]” In spite of—or one might equally say, because of—such inner contradictions, the system of terror is also concerned with justice.
Such distinctions are also reflected in issues of intentionality that so preoccupy some commentators. Here it is important to stress that Luhmann largely discounts the intentionality of psychic systems. As in the case of Charles Manson specifically, under this definition, a terrorist might only have partial intentionality, might have little to no strategy or plan for ultimate inclusion in the social system, but nonetheless could be included within the subsystem of terror. Under Luhmann’s theory, it is the system(s) of communication and not the intentions of any particular actor that determine inclusion or exclusion, or even outcome. So for example with the legal subsystem:
Coding legal/illegal can only be managed on the level of second-order observations, that is, only by observing observers. Such coding is indifferent as to whether or not first-order observers, that is, the perpetrators of acts and their victims, classify their references to the world with law and injustice in mind, or not. If first-order observers assume that they are right or have been wronged and report that, the observer who is observing them may assess the same situation quite differently. If the former did not even think of law or injustice but has something else in mind, the second-order observer nevertheless can apply the code legal/illegal.
Intentionality after all can only be conveyed or understood through communication. According to the theory, a system is always engaged in a description or self-description of the environment or itself from within, even when such a system would like to claim objectivity. So it must be emphasized (rather obviously) here that there is no telepathy between psychic systems, unless through the imagination⏤the internal self-description of a psychic system that happens to fall under the sway of a charismatic terrorist personality such as Charles Manson, for example.
Though perhaps a controversial inclusion in some circles, from the standpoint of Luhmann’s theory one could easily argue that Charles Manson hit the terrorist jackpot. Though rejected in his initial efforts at communication through the art system, Manson’s simple surrealist act in orchestrating the Tate-Labianca murders would finally gain him the notoriety he sought. “Charlie had made the big time.” After Manson’s crimes hit the press, ”[i]t was doubtful if there was any place in California, or the rest of the United States, where the publicity had not reached.” One “enthusiastic Family member was heard to brag, ‘Charlie made the cover of Life!’” Even the judge at the time admitted that a change in venue was irrelevant due to pre-trial publicity. Manson himself said, "You know, there has been more publicity on this . . . than the guy who killed the President of the United States.” Manson claimed at the time that “[t]he news media has already executed and buried me[.]” Paradoxically, the same media gave life to his crimes as a communicative (terrorist) event.
Since the trial itself, the Manson Family murders and related skullduggery have been the subject of multiple books, staged dramatic works or quasi-musicals, and likely have even influenced mainstream television, while his more infamous followers have been depicted in off-Broadway productions. At the time of this writing, multiple film versions of the Manson murders are currently in the works, no doubt to coincide with the upcoming 50th anniversary of the crimes. The cult fascination with Manson bears the hallmarks of a self-perpetuating system, such that this communication is no longer just about Manson, but about society itself:
“Don’t you know who Charles Manson is?” . . . I didn’t feel like going into the fact that I had the book too, that Dad included it on the syllabus for a course he’d last taught at the University of Utah at Rockwell, Seminar on Characteristics of a Political Rebel. . . . sometimes three classes under the lecture title “Freedom Fighter or Fanatic?”
All irony aside, most would agree that “[t]he idea that [Charles] Manson was . . . some Robin Hood rebel against the system is stupid. He was a petty thief, a waster, who was caught up by a wave of history . . .” From this perspective, Manson might be seen as one of the “more dangerous manifestations” of “free love[,]” and of course, “a little out of control[.]” Still, he wasn't (or isn’t) the only manifestation of these phenomena, and it is important to place him in the context of his times and even perhaps in the context of his place— “that specific Californian background which has remained a riddle to most foreigners.” Prior to these terrorist acts, Manson possibly came close to commercial projects that could have afforded inclusion in society’s communicative subsystems of art or entertainment:
Gregg Jakobson and Dennis Wilson [of The Beach Boys] arranged for Charlie to record at a studio in Santa Monica, in Westwood . . . In May or June of 1969, during an English tour, Dennis Wilson told an English rock magazine about Manson, in an interview. Wilson called him the Wizard and said that the Beach Boys’ record label would probably release an album of Manson. . . . Jakobson was pushing the potential of a documentary movie about Charlie and his . . . groupies, but [Terry] Melcher, the president of Arwin Productions and Daywin Music Publishing Company besides being the executive producer of the Doris Day Show, needed persuasion. Jakobson was eager for Melcher to serve as ‘producer and financer’ of the flick. It was the visual impact of the family that would ‘sell’ them to the public, it was thought. . . . It will be remembered that 1969 was the year of the movie Easy Rider . . . Manson wanted satanism. He wanted robbery and chase. He wanted the men of the family depicted in dunebuggy brigandry. He wanted good Armageddon footage with helter-skelter carnage. In other words he wanted to create an “honest" movie presenting the state of his current insanity and that of his followers. It seems that Jakobson, Melcher, et al., were more interested in the gentler aspects of the family: the singing, the love, the tribal religiosity, etc. They seem to have wanted a here-come-the-hippies documentary with Lowell Thomas type narration.
Even after the extreme criminal quality of Manson’s behavior came to light, it is fair to say that society (considered here as a communicative system) has never excluded Manson’s communications (from itself). At least one former left-wing terrorist and contemporary of Manson, who eventually found her way onto the speaking circuit and faculty at top ranked law schools, found it “far out” at the time that Manson and his family “[offed] those rich pigs with their own forks and knives, and then [ate] a meal in the same room.” When seen in the light of Luhmann’s systems theoretical approach, it becomes more difficult if not impossible to disentangle Manson’s crimes, both petty and earth shaking, from his revolutionary rhetoric (or the rhetoric of those who wrote about him), and most especially his reception by society (the communicative environment) in that moment as ‘the most dangerous man alive:’
Clearly Charles Manson already stands as the villain of our time, the symbol of animalism and evil. Lee Harvey Oswald? Sirhan Sirhan? Adolph Eichman? Misguided souls, sure, but as far as we know they never took LSD or fucked more than one woman at a time. Manson is already so hated by the public that all attempts so far to exploit his reputation have failed miserably. . . . Are there 12 people in the country, let alone Los Angeles, who can honestly say they have no opinions about Charles Manson? Mention of his name in polite conversation provokes, not words or heated argument, but noises, guttural sound effects, gasps, shrieks, violent physical gestures of repulsion. He is more than a villain, he is a leper.
Setting aside for the moment the delicate ironies of sixties-era radical thought, Charles Manson would later claim that society, rather than he, constructed in essence both his violent acts and his mythical status as “a revolutionary martyr[.]” The anti-establishment press at the time (now perhaps transformed at least in part into the mainstream press, if such a thing still exists) embraced this view as well:
“I am just a mirror,” Manson says over and over. “Anything you see in me is you.” He says it so often it becomes an evasive action. I'm rubber and you're glue. But there's a truth there nonetheless. The society may be disgusted and horrified by Charles Manson, but it is the society's perverted system . . . its lusts for vengeance and cruelty, that created him.
This central claim, and perhaps Manson’s continuing cult-status in society⏤“popular culture” or at times the “counterculture” as it has been described, rests on the (Luhmannesque) paradox that the “fucked-up society” that he wanted to “give . . . so much fucking fear the people will be afraid to come out of their houses” is allegedly the very same society that created him. In hindsight, Manson admitted to becoming “everything [he] hated” about society. Nonetheless, the adherents of this self-described “half-assed nothing” decided to make “the world . . . take notice.”
Though never describing Manson as a terrorist, and instead preferring to characterize him as a “mass murderer,” the prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi admits in his description of these events that Manson’s “violence was political, revolutionary, and therein lies his main appeal to those on the fringes.” Bugliosi acknowledges that “extremists” are attracted to Manson and his beliefs because of the political quality of his crimes. They are further attracted to Manson because of his “unquestioned intelligence . . . and a mental deftness that allows him to speak in riddles, always with an underlying message.” Manson presents, in other words, a “mystery” to this audience.
“The whole crime seems so illogical,” Roman Polanski would say in his polygraph interview with the Los Angles police, even before the perpetrators were known. Terrorists are expected to have at least rational motives, even if their methods may be deemed irrational by society at large. The rational part of our psychic system seeks to confine Manson at the very least to the criminal⏤the “non-law” side of the legal system’s coding ⏤or possibly the economic subsystem⏤a “drug ‘burn’” gone from bad to worse. As Manson himself told it over a decade later, it was just that, a “dope burn” that eventually led to the murder of Gary Hinman, and then stumbled like some incompetent arabesque into the Tate-Labianca killings.
So Manson fluctuates in a social quantum state, alternatively a nearly incompetent petty crook or a maniacal criminal mastermind. In this vein, Manson is similar to terrorists even to this day, as it is noted in passing that ISIS seems to have much luck in radicalizing attackers with a history of petty crime, and in fact the leader of Aum Shinrikyo seems to have been a petty thug at heart. From the perspective of communication/social theory (a self-described scientific description of society), it is argued here that even the most advanced or complex methods of classifying or describing terrorists, cannot help but include Charles Manson, despite his eventual diagnosis “as suffering from paranoia and schizophrenia[.]” Given Manson’s propensity to mislead even psychiatrists, it does not seem too far fetched that any public confession at a later date which sought to downplay his own complicity is perhaps designed as much to irritate, or—to borrow a non-scientific popular sentiment—to ‘fuck with the system.’ Still, by the very definition, a society that publishes his words is participating in the functionality of the communicative event; as Manson put it:
The myth of Charles Manson has twisted more minds than I was ever accused of touching. . . . all the bullshit has people believing I hold some kind of magic. . . . I’ve got tons of mail to prove the fact. Mail from every country, from all ages and both sexes, sent by people totally unknown to me. Their awareness and interest are strictly the result of books and other forms of public exposure. The letter-writers believe I have the power and charisma that status-hungry journalists have put in their eyes. The twister is that about fifty percent of the people who contact me are offering me their lives to instruct and deal with. Some want to pick up guns and knives for me.
Manson’s existence in society as a communicative event may be the culmination of evolutionary processes extending to literature, history and the art system as an ongoing development of the social system through “the longing for a global Saturnalia⏤and that is literally what ‘Helter Skelter’ meant to the Family and what the Tate/LaBianca murders were intended to trigger[.]” Professor Michael Andre Bernstein, in his description of Charles Manson as the real world embodiment of a fictional/literary archetype (the “abject hero”), describes this Saturnalia as the apocalyptic longing for a “rejection of all hierarchies of value . . . expressly intended to collapse the barriers between actor and spectator, sage and buffoon, and finally, victim and murderer.” Bernstein further argues for a type of “genre memory” that could easily be mistaken for the operations of a system of communication, and Luhmann would likely agree with Bernstein when he says that the evolution of the literary (art) system could cause irritations that would indubitably “work as powerfully in mass culture and on the consumers of its narratives as they do in great literature, and, perhaps most unsettling of all, as they also do in the dead souls of the homicidal.” From the perspective of the system as communication, Luhmann and society’s critics (the sage or the buffoon, as you like) agree at least indirectly with Manson and his “jailhouse” forebears from the literature of Dostoevsky, Celine, Voltaire and Horace, that “society as a whole . . . is to blame.”
If society is to blame, then the system’s argument (but not the coded “truth” of science) proceeds that all members of society are guilty, and to carve the word “war” into a civilian’s stomach is a fitting indictment of society’s military actions. During his trial, following news of Nixon declaring that Manson was obviously guilty, “Manson . . . passed a statement to the press . . . [m]imicking Nixon’s remarks . . .: ‘Here’s a man who is accused of murdering hundreds of thousands in Vietnam who is accusing me of being guilty of eight murders.’” Manson would testify with the jury sequestered: “[I]n your hearts and your own souls, you are as much responsible for the Vietnam war as I am for killing these people . . .” The argument is certainly a reduction in complexity (as all communication must be), yet certainly expresses at least in part “the dispute between a [society] and its discontented rejects.”
A rather clever reject given his circumstances, Manson eventually made a career (of sorts) out of exploiting “the paradox” of society. For Manson, “God and Satan are the same” because of the injustice of modern (Western or Eurocentric) society; he speaks in explicitly religious terms:
If God is One, what is bad? Satan is just God's imagination. Everything I've done for these nineteen hundred and seventy years is now in the open. I went into the desert to confess to God about the crime, I, you, Man has committed for 2,000 years. And that is why I'm here. As a witness. I have been avoiding the cross for nineteen hundred and seventy years. Nineteen hundred and seventy nails in the cross. I was meant to go up on the cross willingly. All the wars, all the deaths, all the hunger of these nineteen hundred and seventy years of blasphemy against Jesus Christ, all the shame and guilt, all the torture, they can't hide it any longer. And unless you are willing to die for your love, you cannot love. Jesus Christ died for your sins and for my sins, and for nineteen hundred and seventy years I have been denying Him. The white man must pay for the deaths of all the Indians that were slaughtered in greed, and now it is time for him to die for them. . . . I am not going to take responsibility for society. So I'm here for stolen dune buggies. If it hadn't been that, it would have been something else. . . . They create things so they can hide their own guilt. . . . Those Christian robes that the judge wears are stained with the blood of millions and millions of lives. Christians have defiled the cross. They wore it into battle. They took Christ into war with them and defiled His image. You know, the cells in this jail are filled with blacks, chicanos, people like me. People who never had anything. . . . That’s what the system is, it's self-recurring. It just goes in circles and circles. Take away the criminal and what have you got? This society needs criminals, they need someone to blame everything on.
Setting aside for the moment the fact that Manson was eventually incarcerated for conspiracy to commit murder rather than merely for theft of “dune buggies,” this line of reasoning closely echoes a critique (or distinction) common to contemporary descriptions of terrorism or international law, a critique of the differentiated (modern) system of communication (society) of which such systems are the sum and substance, i.e. what academics might refer to as “the ethical failure of the Eurocentric world-system.” Manson, it could be pointed out, was also defending an “empire” of sorts.
Other recent and well-received tomes of scholarship have responded to terrorism (and empire) in a similar manner, arguing that “the brutality of a state army and of a terrorist group have much in common[.]” In the testimony at his trial, and discounting as Luhmann does the personal motives of a particular communicator in a given system, Manson sought to erase the distinction of guilt or innocence with regards to acts of the U.S. government in Vietnam. This argument is still quite fashionable among well-respected members of global society, though without giving any credit or even acknowledgement to Manson:
All constitutional states rest on a space of violence that they call legitimate. In a liberal democracy, all citizens and the government that represents them are bound together by mutual obligations, and the actions of the duly elected government are the actions of all its citizens. When the government acts against suspected terrorists and inferior military opponents, everyone is (rightly or wrongly) involved in the space of violence. There may be criticism by particular citizens of the government’s actions on moral or legal grounds, but until these are conceded constitutionally by the government, all citizens remain bound to the space of violence that its representative government inhabits.
Manson would no doubt agree with this assessment of modern society. In a 1986 interview at San Quentin Prison, he infamously argued “there is no murder in a holy war . . .” The argument is not a new one, nor is it a description of a phenomenon confined to the modern age; even during the Middle Ages, emerging complexity had begun to erase distinctions between combatants and non-combatants. Just as Manson did at his trial and later through the media, in Talal Asad’s On Suicide Bombing, ultimately the author seeks to erase any distinction (or differentiation) between acts of state violence and those of the terrorists against which the state fights. Asad argues that he is not seeking “culprits,” but rather is concerned with “definitions of death dealing” that ultimately justify “the destruction of civilians and the terrorizing of entire populations [by the state].”
Luhmann might of course point out that these “definitions” are the very features that define or describe differentiated and modern systems which serve to distinguish between legal, political, and other subsystems of communication (or violence). Asad argues that the “ruthlessness of terrorists often matches the effects achieved in the strategic strikes made by state armies, even when the latter use the language of humanitarian law in which a liberating or self-defensive purpose can be claimed.” Yet these distinctions of “humanitarian law” (and the like) define modern society, for better or worse. Luhmann admits, “if differentiation in its specifically modern form turns out to be not as beneficial as was previously assumed, then one needs to revise one’s judgment of modern society.”
Like these more theoretically inclined if not violent critics of society, Luhmann trafficks in paradox; Manson likewise, at one point trying to represent himself, tells the judge in his case that “behind the big words . . . and the robes you hide the truth.” Manson’s words echo Luhmann’s, who notes that the trappings of the court—“[a]uthority, decorum, limitation of access to the mystery of law, texts to which one can refer, the pomp of entries and exits of judges”—are essentially a “substitution” to conceal the paradox of decision. Luhmann describes the paradox as an ever-receding “blind spot[,] a (non-rational) condition for [the] possibility” of the legal system. Specifically, “a decision is a paradox[,]” and the trappings of the judicial system exist in order to conceal “the assumption that one could decide legally about what is legal and what is illegal[.]”
Luhmann admits that lawyers and logicians find the answer to this paradox to be only of “trivial” concern, yet indeed this might be another way of saying that lawyers (but not necessarily logicians) find the central paradox of the legal system to be “particularly unacceptable[.]” Artists, anti-establishment journalists and other less violent critics of society may argue against the legal system’s “narrow definition of human activity” and may even claim that “the court [is] incapable of ‘recreating’ what ‘really happened’ and therefore of assigning blame[.]” Yet, society and the courts “must function . . . must work . . . must resolve disputes and reach conclusions.” Despite the protestations of Charles Manson and others from the anti-establishment position, the tautology of the legal code remains unbroken in the eyes of the law and society: “Legality is not illegal. Illegality is not legal.” “Courts do not use the distinction of law and non-law to ground their judgments; they assume it instead.” Nonetheless, as certain observers are fond of pointing out, “power is the capacity to exclude or dominate competing ways of understanding the event.” From the perspective of the abject hero, Charles Manson, or other excluded individuals in society, this is no doubt a salient perspective, but as Luhmann might remind us, from the vantage of modern society as a self-generating system of differentiated subsystems of communication, this view from the “domain of exclusion” is largely irrelevant:
One can practically not exist without money[.] . . . Whoever doesn’t have an identity card cannot get a job. [Etc.] . . . In the domain of exclusion . . . [e]ach deficit reinforces another . . . and is inescapable (unless, admittedly, one is in the Mafia). . . . When something takes place there [in this domain], nothing has (actually) taken place. And once more, criminal vocations and their rigid organization⏤crimes being the condition for membership⏤are a significant (and perhaps the only) exception.
Based on this, one could of course argue that “[t]he prosecution and the defense are in two separate worlds.” Like the legal system, organized criminal groups (such as terrorists) have their own “programmes,” or argumentation; after all, as its depiction in popular culture makes clear, the Mafia was considered by those involved as its own system of law, or “protection for the kinds of guys who can't go to the cops.” Like any semi-retired mobster, Charles Manson would no doubt have enjoyed communicating with society through the art or entertainment subsystems. As already mentioned, the terror system and the art system both share a noted desire to achieve communication of increasing intensity and innovation; Stockhausen isn't the only one to have commented on this. Other prominent first-order observers/participants of/in the art/entertainment system (“artists” as society calls them) have described themselves as “terrorists” and even found that “the big distinction between good art and so-so art lies . . . in be[ing] willing to . . . die” in order to move the audience, or ‘the system’ one might say. To put it in terms of the art subsystem: Art is not non-art. Non-art is not art. The distinction may ultimately be fatal, for the system, or for individuals caught within it. Manson made the “the big time” as a revolutionary, but never as an artist. As noted, his doomsday vision was not something that entertainment (music or even film) producers were willing to ultimately accept as a commodity, even during such turbulent times. Ultimately, Manson’s actions (his crimes) achieved status as communication within the terror subsystem, no matter how ineffectual in achieving any real political change:
Like Castro in the hills . . . Charlie advocated the overthrow of the government, and the police force and everything. He thought it was all wrong, it was as simple as that. He wanted to do more than talk about it, but like so many revolutionaries, he really had no solution.
Manson’s lack of any real solution or plan, dovetails with other religious doomsday cults—though ISIS might have built a functioning quasi-state for a short time, even at the peak of its territorial integrity, its endgame appeared to be nothing more than apocalyptic confrontation with the West, or “Rome” as you have it. As noted, in at least one interview, Manson invoked the notion of “a holy war[.]” Manson’s own contradictions (turmoil or paradox?) are ultimately expressed in religious terms. Manson’s ill-fated Family existed, as Luhmann would likely describe it, as a “mixed form” of social movement, taking shape as a protest movement would, and borrowing from various social subsystems, including religion and politics. The Dalai Lama disassociated Buddhism from the cult of Aum Shinrikyo as soon as that group’s crimes were known. Likewise, the idea that ISIS should be included in the religious system has provoked some controversy. Though Manson’s Family as a form of protest movement borrowed from the political subsystem, the language of Manson’s followers, the description of Manson in the press, and his own utterances operate through essentially religious distinction and paradox.
As Luhmann decides it, “religion is concerned with problems of meaning as problems of resolving paradoxes.” Social observers can easily see that Manson has been described as both Christ and Satan. The tradition of blasphemy in the United States is perhaps richer than many would like to admit or imagine even. In this context, blasphemy might be considered as “injustice” for the legal code, but for the religious system, which also “envisages other possibilities” for its operations. Yet these contingency formulae or norms remain a part of the system, even if rejected through internal operations, and even if difficult to reconcile with the paradox of the code. Paradoxes according to Luhmann form a diverse and essential function in society, “as a rhetorical form of joking, as a way to demolish logical systems, as a symbolic form of expressing ineffability, as an argument for differentiating levels, as an argument for or against certain types of metaphysics, or as a mystification of decisions (and of the decision-maker!).” Most importantly, it does not matter the intent of the individual actor of terror, or whether the psychic system (consciousness) is actually experiencing any religious phenomena at all or merely inventing pure fantasy.
Individual psychic systems are able to conceive (imagine or believe) themselves as members within a sect or cult, church or “organization,” with very different practices or beliefs, yet their communications may still be included within the global religious system of communication according to Luhmann’s theory. At the same time, these religious communications do not depend on any truth outside of the system itself. The person could be pretending or mistaken or even perhaps a “blasphemer,” yet nonetheless communicate within the religious subsystem. “One has religious communication when uncanny powers of the hereafter or sacred things are spoken of, and when actions are recognizably being taken in their name.” Individuals may also “report on their own religious experiences[.]” Thus, perhaps, for Luhmann’s theory the argument about whether or not a particular terrorist act is religiously motivated or caused by religion is irrelevant; the mere fact of the religious description, or even an argument about whether or not it is a religious act, may be enough to allow that a given utterance (a suicide bombing, for example) has structurally coupled with the religious subsystem, even if not directly included (or if disputed) within the system itself.
Significantly, it is noted that Linda Kasabian, who would eventually betray Manson to the authorities in her testimony concerning the Tate-Labianca killings, fell in with his group after wandering “from the east coast to the west, ‘looking for God.’” She found unfortunately what often passes for God in modern society, a Nietzschean prophet; Manson is rumored to have performed miracles. He promoted himself as a “miracle healer[,]” allegedly curing a dying horse and also someone with a “club foot.” In the “trek over the wilderness down to the Barker Ranch . . . several miracles were alleged to have been performed by . . . Manson.” To reach Barker Ranch, it is told that he was able to levitate a bus “over a creek crag.” Another family member claimed that Manson once “had picked up a dead bird, breathed on it, and the bird had flown away.” The prosecutor Bugliosi, while describing his skepticism of “Manson’s alleged ‘powers’[,]” reports his own famous incident (also recounted in the filmed version of the book) in which Manson appeared to cause Bugliosi’s watch to stop, though of course the prosecutor consoles himself that this was “simply a coincidence.” While in prison awaiting trial for the Tate-Labianca murders, Manson, “not without a sense of humor[,] managed to obtain an application for a . . . credit card.” On the application, he listed his business as “Religious” and his occupation as “Evangelist[.]”
What salvation was Manson selling? The Hole. One wonders at times whether this hole was a physical place or merely a psychic space, like a system perhaps, or a place where society hides its unmentionables, an unmarked space. Though perhaps derived from Hopi legends concerning “a large underground world from which the Hopi nation emerged to dwell on Earth’s surface[,]” the Hole in Manson’s dogmatics would take on more sinister meanings and practices; he would call it the Devil’s Hole, and found further support from the Book of Revelations. There can be no doubt that Manson’s life would be considered the opposite of a religious life by most major world religions, and far from offering enlightenment, Manson’s teachings have been likened to a “mental-death program.” Unfortunately, it is not so easy to disentangle Manson’s communications from the religious system; as Luhmann puts it, “it has to be seen as unlikely that a system’s self-description will congeal into principles or dogmas that permit religious communication to recognize itself as religious.” In some regards, Manson’s Family epitomizes evolutionary developments (and failures) in a global religious system undergoing “a wide variety of experimentation . . . related to the situation of religion in a functionally differentiated society.”
From the perspective of communication, or society, it makes little difference whether Manson was a charlatan or a miracle worker. “Clearly, the shaman is always in danger of having a ‘bad trip[.]” Luhmann further describes such a risk as death (or the inability to return), but we might also analogize this phenomenon to a misshapen or ill-conceived pilgrimage, not unlike Manson’s own rather unfortunate journey. Manson claimed that he was “already dead[.]” Thus, Manson was consigned, even before his terrorist acts, to the unmarked space of society (in part by his own choices no doubt) and as such underwent a form of death – a social death.
TERROR/THE UNMARKED SPACE
Russia may have had its Raskolnikovs and Karamazovs, but we, in America,
will have to make do with our own Charles Manson.
-Michael Bernstein, Bitter Carnival
The danger of course with the approach of applying this global systems theory to the study of terrorism is being lumped in with “the ‘prophets of doom’ who pile all forms of terrorism into a single global menace . . . far larger and more coherent than it is.” In response, one can only say that Luhmann’s theory does not dwell on the coherence of a given (global) system of communication. Coherence is not the issue, as a system is merely the sum total of its operations, which are only internally coherent from the standpoint of the system itself and likewise may be disconnected or caused by irritations on the part of actors (or “psychic systems”) who have no ultimate direct connection aside from at the system level. Size is not the issue here, because for Luhmann, modern society is defined by global systems of communication, which exist independently from physical edifice. The issue for Luhmann is whether or not the system is closed and self-generating. The argument here is that such a closed and self-generating (autopoietic) system does exist for global terrorist/communicative events, regardless of any specific coordination between terrorist groups or individuals. Tellingly, it is difficult to predict the effect on the terror system of taking territory away and excising unrecognized (non-legal) state power from those previously successful insurgencies (dare I say “the artist formerly known as ‘insurgency plus’”?) such as Islamic State (ISIS).
According to the theory, self-generating or autopoietic communication is all about creating distinctions, and the terrorist, in communicating, erases distinctions, particularly “the prevailing moral distinctions . . . between belligerents and neutrals, combatants and noncombatants, legitimate and illegitimate targets.” As discussed, the global saturnalia preached by Charles Manson also was about erasing distinctions. Luhmann’s theory predicts in part that distinctions should increase as complexity increases in modern society, and thus terrorism indicates perhaps a crisis of modern complexity for the individual psychic system as much as any other causal agent of human radicalization; the evolution of the modern (global) legal system in the face of the political interests of states—the political system—remains uncertain. But Manson serves as an illustration that a terrorist may arise from the art/entertainment subsystem (or its shadows perhaps) as much as either of the two aforementioned contenders. Perhaps here is the connection to art again; terrorism is politics become a scream. Manson’s murder of at least one famous actress, and his possible intention to have killed other famous persons at the Tate address, as well as the rumored celebrity “hit list” he had waiting in the wings, offer a parallel to those perhaps more politically minded terrorists who aim to murder—or at the very least “irritate”—politicians and their lackeys.
If war is politics by other means than terrorism is simply communication by other means, which indicates a rejection of acceptance or participation in global society and its subsystems to varying degree, an occupation so to speak of the negative unmarked space of society. Terrorism always seeks to cross over to the socially legitimate (positive) value of the code—whether it be in the subsystem of politics, law, religion or even art, as Manson’s crimes suggest. It is possible that this is an inescapable state of modern society, and that violent communication will continue to emerge as a means of reducing system complexity to allow for communication from certain outsider or self-described excluded elements. If there are no noncombatants for modern society, at least as far as communication goes, there most certainly are those excluded, to greater or lesser degree. This may not be a decisive factor in radicalization, but it certainly may drive terrorist ideology—accurately or not—“for terrorism is usually resorted to by small groups of people whose motives may not necessarily be connected with observable ‘objective’ political, economic, social or psychological trends.”
Close to Charles Manson and his Family, arguably the religiously minded terrorist seeks to destroy/remake society itself, perhaps irrationally, and possibly in a less complex undifferentiated form. “Religion, like terrorism, offers certainty[.]” What does the religiously minded terrorist hope to accomplish but the destruction of differentiated society? Though again, Luhmann largely discounts intentions specifically, perhaps here is the connection to art once more, as terrorism is politics (or religion or art even) become a scream. Modern art becomes a pure embodiment (utterance, Mitteilung, message or notification) of the unity of the distinction/code (art/non-art), conveying little else besides ‘I am art (even though I am not)!’ or ‘I am not art (even though I am)!’ Terrorism also is communication become a scream, conveying little else besides ‘I am terrorism (even though I am justice)!’ or ‘I must be heard (even though you refuse to hear me)!’ The religiously minded terrorist in a sense merely proclaims ‘I am the true society!’ or ‘I am not your society!’
Witness Manson and his followers with an X carved into their foreheads during the trial—his message, notification, utterance or performance seems to boil down to a symbolic separation from society, i.e. ‘fuck society’ or ‘fuck the system.’ Here, though dangerously venturing into the field of creative interpretation, one might say that Manson’s message is simply ‘fuck modern society with your law and non-law, with your office buildings and your jails, with your straight and hip, your establishment and non-establishment, etc.’ Fuck your distinctions, because they are all bullshit to conceal the “original paradox” of society, as a more radical Luhmann might have put it, had he been more of a buffoon and less of a sage, interested in critique (or revolution), rather than scientific description. Still, Luhmann is willing to admit, “[i]n the tendency toward unity, everything ultimately leads to God.” Are the utterances of Charles Manson, ISIS, Aum Shinrikyo, or others of their ilk, ultimately much more complex than this? Perhaps, but that is beyond the scope of the present study.