the atrocity is the message:

the terror system, violence as utterance,

and terror in the theory of niklas luhmann



the opposition’s tongue is cut in two.[1]

 

regarding isis, the latest evolutionary step in the terror system, one analyst concludes that “[t]he clearest evidence that we do not understand this phenomenon is our consistent inability to predict—still less control—these developments.”[2] the writings of the late german sociologist niklas luhmann predict this very fact—the unpredictability of the evolution of systems of communication.[3] if one looks at the violence of terrorism as a structural development of an evolving global system of communication, its very unpredictability is self-evident.

 

there is no need here to discuss the evidence that terrorism is a form of communication.[4] though there may be some disagreement among practitioners as to the precise methods or tactics to be utilized, and there may be some disagreement among theorists as to the exact definition, the fact that terrorists are attempting communication goes without saying.[5] yet nonetheless, the application of niklas luhmann’s particular brand of communications theory, or systems theoretical approach as he calls it, may prove enlightening, especially for an audience in the united states, which has largely ignored luhmann’s writings to this point. such an application may also provide new insight to those within terrorism studies, who may not have encountered luhmann before.

 

some familiar with luhmann’s work find the endeavor to be “radical,”[6] while others find that “the insight that societies have their own reasoning and logic that does not correspond to those of the individuals who inhabit them virtually defines sociology [and is a] premise . . . basically unchanged since the days of marx and engels[.]”[7] if the effect remains uncertain, the intention behind luhmann’s writings is clear; the text is designed to act (if not to explode) as a neutron bomb, excising all the people but leaving the structures (of communication) still standing. or as luhmann phrases it: “communication can no longer be understood as a ‘transmission’ of information from an (operatively closed) living being or conscious system to any other such system.”[8]

 

for those seeking to understand the political system, or its component (or possibly its subsystem) of terrorism, luhmann as “radical” is (relatively) straightforward, and may be quite similar to certain religious or pacifist positions which view all violence (or attempts at control, i.e. ‘politics’) as part of a single system:

 

[f]rom a luhmannian perspective, both the established political parties and the socalled ngos, both the republicans and greenpeace, both the g8 summit and the demonstrations against it in the streets constitute the political system and share the belief that humans can and should politically steer society. they only disagree on the means and ends of political steering; they only differ with respect to their position of power. neither the government nor the opposition (no matter if in parliament or on the streets) accepts the “limits of steering.”[9]

 

along with the ‘ngos’ and the ‘opposition’ one should include terrorism. prior to luhmann, communication theory in this case would commonly reference cybernetics, or systems as control mechanism,[10] the most extreme form of which, one could argue, is violence.[11] undoubtedly, in its essential form, terrorism itself may be nothing more than a symbolic denial of the state’s near monopoly on legal violence.[12] indeed, the very first terrorists advocated “propaganda by deed” as a means of promoting anarchism, and their more recent progeny picked up on the same idea.[13] luhmann would no doubt agree that when “psychological and emotional effects” on an audience become “more important . . . than the military or tactical benefits of the violence itself[,]”[14] the act has crossed over from mere action to utterance, utterance being one component in a communicative event according to luhmann’s approach.[15]

 

the application of luhmann’s theory to the study of terrorism is ultimately quite intuitive. a system of communication consists entirely of an utterance (which could be in part a legal text or a work of art or, as we might mention in context of this discussion, a bomb exploding in a crowded marketplace) that includes information (a “structural coupling,” “surprise” or “irritation” for adjacent closed systems, especially living ones)[16] which could possibly lead to understanding (determined not by external/other closed systems but within the specified system itself, through its own continuing operations). a system of course is free to reject a given communicative event, which might be equivalent in the case of terrorism to an act which goes unnoticed, or relegated to the back pages.[17]

 

once these ideas are fully grasped, “luhmann’s . . . social systems theory often provides the most advanced, adequate, and applicable models for understanding how things work in contemporary society.”[18] one does not have to be a specialist to notice this. we are living in a complex world, that is broken down repeatedly and repackaged in a more understandable form for the general audience or for more specific audiences operating inside adjacent yet differentiated subsystems, i.e. “society.” this constant repackaging that we call society is nothing more than communication.

 

when luhmann talks about society, he is of course talking about global society.[19] it is argued here that the varying interests of states in such a global society create situations which are ripe for exploitation by those inclined to terrorist tactics.[20] perhaps the perspective of a particular observer is incorrect when judged in a larger or different context, and the audience/potential terrorist group which is observing (describing) itself as excluded may in fact have legitimate recourse to nonviolent communication. negotiations with terrorist groups, to the contrary of much sloganeering on both sides, are not uncommon, but often fruitless.[21][22] a terror group (or splinter factions formerly a part of the group) may not easily be persuaded that options of communication other than violence are available, especially given the complexities of the modern system. a specific political, legal or otherwise social exclusion, as in the case of those without legal residence in a given geography, may also be a simple fact of system operations.[23] if a given style of communication involving violence appears to obtain results, in the form of greater irritation or structural coupling of or with society, or possibly even eventual inclusion in operations of the subsystems (political, economic, legal or perhaps more than one) comprising society, then such operations would appear adaptive to the environment of modern society. if a given set of operations, consisting of violent acts or utterances, no longer serves its function of communication, i.e. no longer “solves” a “problem” for global society, such a system or series of communicative operations or events will cease to exist.[24] or put another way, the functional use by society of a closed and autopoietic subsystem of communication is evidenced by its continued existence as a functioning, closed, autopoietic system.[25]

 

so what is the function of the terror system in global society? as noted, luhmann is discussing a theory of global society,[26] which seems critical. if such a society decries terrorist violence, why does it continue to exist? as noted above, “society tolerates . . . differentiations if they maintain a function relation to the problems of society.”[27] yet terror seems the exact opposite of what society would tolerate. luhmann notes, however, that society may use a system to contradict itself. “human rights are definitely a result of modern individualism, but disobedience of the law is an equally important result as well.”[28] perhaps there is a thread here, in the “discrepancy between politics and law, which first appeared in europe with the formation of the modern state[.]”[29] especially with regards to “independence and self-determination of nations, ethnic groups, and ethnic groups in the territory of other ethnic groups—one ventures into uncharted terrain and here, once more, violence is the ultimate arbiter.”[30]

 

though luhmann perhaps has some difficulty identifying the exact point at which a system becomes self-generating (closed and autopoetic),[31] arguably the terror system has differentiated as an autopoietic or self-generating system of communication, especially since 9/11, but possibly going back farther than that. especially in the light of certain “well-established”[32] terrorist campaigns, one could argue that the terror system is a functioning, closed and autopoietic system within global society, where the various sides exchange blows (or communiques) in a consistent fashion, in such a manner that these operations will continue to serve a function within society. the israeli-palestinian conflict springs to mind as a ready example.

 

scholarship appears to show inconclusive results as to whether negotiations affect violence,[33] and this matches what luhmann would predict. the negotiations can be viewed as a separate structure of the (political) system of communication, and the violence is part of a different subsystem entirely. the two systems can never entirely influence the other—they can merely structurally couple—some influence perhaps, but confined to the “irritation” of information from a rival system of communication. much established research indicates that terrorist campaigns appear to follow luhmann’s theory; they are fairly unpredictable as to outcome.[34] some fizzle out, just like subsystems may that fail to evolve into closed systems, and others keep going ad infinitum as one might expect from a self-generating system of communication.[35]

 

using luhmann’s theory, one could argue it is quite expected to see the development of an extremist group such as isis, which has brought terrorist atrocity to the next level after 9/11 and has been remarkably successful in attracting adherents. what we are really getting at here is whether a particular structure of system operations (terrorist violence or possibly a functioning system of terror as communication) is necessitated by the (differentiated) structure of modern society. the terrorist act is a facet of modern society that refuses to go away, whomever the exact perpetrators and whatever the exact motivation. as noted, such acts have evolved along with the modern state, and along with modern society. at the dawn of the twentieth century, yerkes and dodson suggested arguably that, in the face of increasing complexity, the individual may actually shut down and receive less information.[36][37] luhmann’s concept of structural coupling as a means of reducing complexity implies that subsystems might actually compete for the attention of participants or adherents. perhaps given the parameters of terror it is only inevitable that the message/atrocity structure within the global system of communication develops more extreme forms. or as luhmann would phrase it: “[w]e have to presuppose that it is possible to form further autopoietic systems within autopoietic systems.”[38]

 

luhmann indicates that terrorism, along with political corruption, reduces system complexity.[39] perhaps the conscious system (human) might seek out a complete collapse of modern complexity, an appalling idea to those modernists still haunting the television studios, but quite an appealing idea to those foreign fighters who seek to join isis, which offers the premodern system of communication, where the political, religious and legal subsystems are entirely contained in one functioning social system. or the terrorist is motivated to strike out at the global modernist system of communication with its concept of human rights in order to “increase the trespass” against a legal communicative order which the group denies.[40] as luhmann puts it, “[a] global society, which is scandalized sufficiently by gross failures could be expected to establish a structure of legal norms, independent of regional traditions and the political interests of regional states.”[41] the terrorist may be motivated by a symbolic denial of the state’s authority, or the international order of states, as the sole authorized purveyor of violence or enforcer of “[h]uman rights [which] deal with the difficulties of coping with a complex world.”[42] if isis denies modern complexity, and in particular the modernist system of states since the treaty of westphalia in 1648, which it clearly does,[43] it is also certainly a “regional tradition” in conflict with the norms of such a system.

 

hence, the atrocity is the message—a twist on mcluhan to be sure.[44] the form of this utterance has become almost a scream, like modern art.[45] when one considers stockhausen’s controversial gaffe about 9/11,[46] the effect is quite lucid, so long as you are not one of terrorism’s victims.[47] as stockhausen later clarified, the audience/victims in this case were not given a choice, a fact that clearly makes an act of terrorism a crime, no matter its communicative outcome.[48] nonetheless, do any participants have a choice regarding their involvement with the dominant system of communication - “society” as luhmann would likely define it? for society, insofar as communication goes, there are no noncombatants.

 

 

 

 

[1] the rolling stones, undercover of the night, on undercover (rolling stones records, 1983)

 

[2] anonymous, the mystery of isis, the new york review of books, august 13, 2015, available at: http://today.duke.edu/ showcase/mmedia/features/911site/groundzeroland.html (the author lays out a clear case for the unpredictability for the rise of isis.)

 

[3] niklas luhmann, law as a social system 267 (klaus a. ziegert trans., oxford university press 2004):evolution leads—without any particular purpose or telos—to the morphogenesis of systems, which can proceed with their autopoiesis, even when there is a high degree of structural complexity and requisite multiplicity and diversity of operations. . . . hence, what stands out, quite clearly, is that the development of higher complexity is triggered off unwittingly, and that the evolution of the legal system is a good example of this process.

 

[4] see, for example, alex p. schmid and janny de graaf, violence as communication: insurgent terrorism and the western news media 53 (sage publications ltd. 1982) (“the terrorists used the information machines as identification machines that translated the physical violence against one into psychic violence against millions.”); alex schmid, terrorism - the definitional problem, 37 case w. res. j. int’l l. 375, 382 (2005) (“the emphasis in this definition is on a model of violence as communication.”).

 

[5] see, for example, anonymous, the mystery of isis, the new york review of books, august 13, 2015, available at: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2015/aug/13/mystery-isis/ (“in 2005 . . . al-qaeda leaders sent messages advising zarqawi [the head of isis] to stop publicizing his horrors. they used modern strategy jargon—’more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media[.]”)

 

[6] see, for example, hans-georg moeller, the radical luhmann (columbia university press 2012)

 

[7] thomas o. beebee, can law-and-humanities survive systems theory?, 22 cardozo stud. & lit. 244, 249 (2010)

 

[8] niklas luhmann, art as a social system 58 (stanford university press 2000, trans. eva m. knodt) (footnote omitted)

 

[9] hans-georg moeller, the radical luhmann (columbia university press 2012) (quoting niklas luhmann, “limits of steering,” theory, culture, and society 14, no. 1 (1997) 41-57)

 

[10] niklas luhmann, art as a social system 58 (stanford university press 2000, trans. eva m. knodt) (“cybernetics . . . concerns itself with operations of regulations and control, whatever the apparatus might be that carries out these operations.”).

 

[11] see michel foucault, discipline and punish 55 - 58 (second vintage books edition 1995, first american edition published by pantheon 1978, trans. alan sheridan 1977) (“if torture was so strongly embedded in legal practice, it was because it revealed truth and showed the operation of power. . . . it also made the body of the condemned man the place where the vengeance of the sovereign was applied, the anchoring point for a manifestation of power, an opportunity of affirming the dissymmetry of forces. . . . the atrocity that haunted the public execution . . . was the principle of the communication between the crime and the punishment[.] . . . an execution that was known to be taking place, but which did so in secret, would scarcely have had any meaning.”).

 

[12] i say “near monopoly” here for those jurisdictions which still allow for self-defense by ordinary citizens.

 

[13] bommi baumann, wie alles anfing - how it all began - the personal account of a west german urban guerrilla 34 (arsenal pulp press 2000, trans. helene ellenbogen and wayne parker).

 

[14] audrey kurth cronin, how terrorism ends: understanding the decline and demise of terrorist campaigns 4 (princeton university press 2009)

 

[15] see, for example, niklas luhmann, art as a social system 40 (stanford university press 2000, trans. eva m. knodt) (“communications occurs whenever the utterance of an information is understood—which may result in acceptance or rejection, consensus or dissent.” in other words, a system of communication according to luhmann consists not of persons but of events, or operations consisting of: 1) utterance; 2) information; 3) understanding; and 4) acceptance or rejection.)

 

[16] luhmann notes that the term “irritation” is “mutually inclusive” with the term “structural coupling,” a process that triggers “surprises . . . and disturbances.” niklas luhmann, law as a social system 383 (klaus a. ziegert trans., oxford university press 2004); see also, referencing ‘classic’ information theory, niklas luhmann, legal argumentation: an analysis of its form, 58 mod. l. rev. 285, 291 (1995) (“a communication process produces information in so far as it produces surprises.”)

 

[17] see, for example, alex p. schmid and janny de graaf, violence as communication: insurgent terrorism and the western news media 32 (sage publications ltd. 1982) (“‘we would throw roses if it would work’, one fedayeen has said. roses, however, have a lower news value.” (citation omitted)); see also, id. at 37-38 (“the rally was better than a press conference. marches were better than rallies, since the moving crowd looked better on the action-hungry tv-screen. and violence was what the media responded to most.” (citation omitted))

 

[18] hans-georg moeller, the radical luhmann 3 (columbia university press 2012)

 

[19] niklas luhmann, law as a social system 479 (klaus a. ziegert trans., oxford university press 2004) (“[t]here cannot be any doubt that under current conditions there is only one single society: global society.”)

 

[20] audrey kurth cronin, how terrorism ends: understanding the decline and demise of terrorist campaigns 3 (princeton university press 2009) (“[t]errorism has been consistently tied to the evolving politics and identity of the state[.]”)

 

[21] audrey kurth cronin, how terrorism ends: understanding the decline and demise of terrorist campaigns

 

[22] -72 (princeton university press 2009)

 

[23] unless such status is the subject of serious reforms; a cursory examination of u.s. politics over the past ten or so years indicates that the political system may present roadblocks to otherwise “simple” legal solutions for such problems (“amnesty”).

 

[24] niklas luhmann, a systems theory of religion 88 (stanford university press 2013, trans. david a. brenner with adrian hermann) (“the advantage we gain in relation to the initial problem (which we could also call the ‘function’ of coding), is found in the specification of operations that are capable of connection with the positive value of the code.”); see also, niklas luhmann, art as a social system 133-34 (stanford university press 2000, trans. eva m. knodt) (“[t]he orientation toward specific functions (or problems) of the social system catalyzes the formation of subsystems that dominate the face of society.”)

 

[25] a circular argument, but ultimately according to luhmann’s theory and perhaps as a true fact of observation itself—we are always led back to a paradox—a distinction which forms a unity; see, for example, niklas luhmann, art as a social system 302 (stanford university press 2000, trans. eva m. knodt) (“the self-description of a system is a paradoxical undertaking from the very beginning. . . . [t]he operation of self-description yields the distinction between describing and the described within the same system.” (emphasis in original))

 

[26] niklas luhmann, law as a social system 479 (klaus a. ziegert trans., oxford university press 2004) (“[t]here cannot be any doubt that under current conditions there is only one single society: global society.”)

 

[27] niklas luhmann, law as a social system 467 (klaus a. ziegert trans., oxford university press 2004)

 

[28] niklas luhmann, law as a social system 479 (klaus a. ziegert trans., oxford university press 2004)

 

[29] niklas luhmann, law as a social system 484 (klaus a. ziegert trans., oxford university press 2004)

 

[30] niklas luhmann, law as a social system 484 (klaus a. ziegert trans., oxford university press 2004)

 

[31] niklas luhmann, law as a social system 154 (klaus a. ziegert trans., oxford university press 2004) (to cite one example where he seems to draw a more exact line of departure from closed to open, luhmann states that “[t]he economy changed to the use of money and, through this, differentiated itself as an operatively closed system[.]”)

 

[32] audrey kurth cronin, how terrorism ends: understanding the decline and demise of terrorist campaigns 15 (princeton university press 2009)

 

[33] see, for example, audrey kurth cronin, how terrorism ends: understanding the decline and demise of terrorist campaigns 48-57 (princeton university press 2009) (discussing the israeli-palestinian peace process and its relationship to terrorist violence)

 

[34] see, for example, audrey kurth cronin, how terrorism ends: understanding the decline and demise of terrorist campaigns 109 (princeton university press 2009) (discussing the aldo moro kidnapping as a primary factor leading to the collapse of the italian red brigades)

 

[35] see, for example, audrey kurth cronin, how terrorism ends: understanding the decline and demise of terrorist campaigns 209-10 (princeton university press 2009) (“precise numbers for organizational life-span are impossible to consistently obtain for terrorist groups . . . ongoing groups were coded with an end year of 2006 (the year the data were compiled).”)

 

[36] see, for example, david m. diamond et al., the temporal dynamics model of emotional memory processing: a synthesis on the neurobiological basis of stress-induced amnesia, flashbulb and traumatic memories, and the yerkes-dodson law, neural plasticity, vol. 2007, (hindawi publishing corporation, available at: http://www.hindawi.com/journals/np/

 

[37] /060803/abs/)

 

[38] niklas luhmann, law as a social system 467 (klaus a. ziegert trans., oxford university press 2004)

 

[39] niklas luhmann, law as a social system 404 (klaus a. ziegert trans., oxford university press 2004)

 

[40] paul w. kahn, the cultural study of law: reconstructing legal scholarship 111 (1999) (“norms make possible deviant behavior, as well as compliance. this insight is as old as saint paul’s letter to the romans: ‘law came in, to increase the trespass.’”)

 

[41] niklas luhmann, law as a social system 487 (klaus a. ziegert trans., oxford university press 2004)

 

[42] niklas luhmann, law as a social system 135 (klaus a. ziegert trans., oxford university press 2004)

 

[43] see, for example, graeme wood, what isis really wants, the atlantic, march 2015, available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/03/what-isis-really-wants/384980/ (“the modern international system, born of the 1648 peace of westphalia, relies on each state’s willingness to recognize borders, however grudgingly. for the islamic state, that recognition is ideological suicide.”)

 

[44] see, for example, marshall mcluhan, understanding media: the extensions of man (first published by mcgraw-hill, 1964)

 

[45] niklas luhmann, art as a social system 298 (stanford university press 2000, trans. eva m. knodt) (“art approaches a boundary where artistic information ceases to be information and becomes solely utterance [mitteilung], or more accurately, where information is reduced to conveying to the audience that art wants to be nothing more than utterance.”)

 

[46] see for example, frank lentricchia and jody mcauliffe, september 11th: a campus reflects, the south atlantic quarterly 101:2, spring 2002, available at: http://today.duke.edu/showcase/mmedia/features/911site/groundzeroland.html (“on september 16, 2001, karlheinz stockhausen, the german pioneer of electronic music and a figure of international renown, was asked at a news conference in hamburg for his reaction to the terrorist strikes in the united states. he responded by calling the attack on the world trade center ‘the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos,’ and went on to speak in apparent awe of the terrorists’ achievement of ‘something in one act’ that ‘we couldn’t even dream of in music,’ in which ‘people practice like crazy for ten years, totally fanatically for a concert, and then die.’”)

 

[47] “only the dead have seen the end of war.” though attributed to plato, the source of this quote may be the writings of george santayana or general george macarthur’s farewell speech to the cadets at west point in 1962. source: http://platodialogues.org/faq/faq008.htm

 

[48] frank lentricchia and jody mcauliffe, september 11th: a campus reflects, the south atlantic quarterly 101:2, spring 2002, available at: http://today.duke.edu/showcase/mmedia/features/911site/groundzeroland.html (“after returning home from his hamburg debacle [his previous statement to the media], stockhausen issued this statement on his web site: ‘in my work, i have defined lucifer as the cosmic spirit of rebellion, of anarchy. he uses his high degree of intelligence to destroy creation. . . . i used the designation ‘work of art’ to mean the work of destruction personified in lucifer.’ at the press conference, stockhausen had been asked if he considered lucifer’s ‘work of art’ to be a criminal act and he answered that it was of course a criminal act because the innocent who were killed had not been given a choice. he added, ‘but what happened spiritually, this jump out of security, out of the self-evident, out of everyday life [not out of life itself, as tommasini reports], this sometimes also happens in art . . . or it is worthless.’) (note please that anthony tommasini was a classical music critic at the time for the the new yorktimes whose initial report of stockhausen’s words was widely reprinted in “american dailies”)

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