Thursday, February 23, 2012

Nec Spe Nec Metu by Hans Goerg Moeller

On, a reader of my book Luhmann Explained wrote "Niklas Luhmann was a student of Talcott Parsons, from whom he apparently learned only how to write impossibly vague and convoluted prose. I have found reading Luhmann extremely soporific, so I thought this book [Luhmann Explained] might be refreshingly lucid and penetrating. Perhaps, I thought, if I could only stay awake, I could learn a lot from Luhmann. Alas, such does not appear to be the case…if your teenager is bad, don’t ground him; make him write an essay on the sociological theory of Niklas Luhmann.”

I sympathize with this reader’s point of view. Having read texts by Luhmann for about twenty years, I have increasingly asked myself why, even though I find the theory very appealing, its inventor did not manage to express it in a reasonably enjoyable manner. Sometimes, particularly in his later works, Luhmann’s irony and humor interrupt his otherwise extremely dry, unnecessarily convoluted, poorly structured, highly repetitive, overly long, and aesthetically unpleasing texts. The irony and humor are refreshing, but do not suffice to rescue most of his books and many of his articles from being, generally speaking, “extremely soporific” reading material. I readily admit, the material sometimes made me fall asleep.

[Hans-George explains, rather than excuses, why Luhmann was such a bad writer in Chapter Two.]

Sigmund Freud set up a famous list of the three insults to human narcissism, namely Copernicus’s proof that the earth was not the center of the Universe (the cosmological insult), Darwin’s discovery that man was not the crown of creation (the biological insult), and his own findings regarding the insignificant powers of the ego compared to drives and unconscious forces such as the libido (the psychological insult). [In the author’s view] Luhmann now adds another insult to this list – one that could be called the sociological insult. If Luhmann’s analysis is correct, then human society cannot steer itself. Just as we cannot control the universe, our bodies, or our minds, we are also unable to shape the social world we inhabit according to our ideals, wishes or intentions.

We try to cope with this insult by creating utopias such as “the liberal free market order, socialist welfare justice, social market economy, and the welfare state”; the gestures and promises of which Luhmann compares to the rain dances of the Hopi Indians and ascribes the same important function: to spread the impression that something is being done rather than merely waiting until things change by themselves.

In Luhmann’s immediate social environment, that is, post World War II Germany from the 1960s to the 1990s, the new left, both in academia and in politics, tended to apply “shock and awe” rhetorical strategies as their primary communicative tools. First, moral outrage was created – about the Nazi background of the parent generation; about the Vietnam war and American imperialism; about the capitalist Schweinesystem (pig system); about the nuclear arms race; about unfair trade mechanisms; about human rights violations; about nuclear power plants, the dying of the forests, other environmental disasters and so forth. Then, beautiful counter-visions were suggested: political and sexual liberation, an economy based on fairness and nonprofit orientation, political justice and equal rights for all, pacifism and disarmament, wind and solar power, a green conscience, and so on. The most prominent German leftists were Jurgen Habermas, the proponent of a ‘discourse without domination", and Ulrick Beck with his reflections on “risk society”, are good examples of these communicative techniques. Moral communications of this sort function by highlighting the scandalous and by contrasting it, at least implicitly, with a cathartically relieving remedy. In this way nonironical ethics and nonironical reason produce a lot of social and psychological heat: they are exciting. People will be shocked, be enraged, and feel threatened by being alerted to all the bad and catastrophic things around them that they hadn’t really been aware of, as well as awed, enamored, and passionate about the wonderful solutions that are just around the corner if society would only complete its own enlightenment. Nonironic shock and awe morality, in other words, operates by fueling both fears and hopes. It depicts an image of hell, but also offers a Kuschelecke (“cuddling corner”) for relaxation.

The Luhmannian attitude towards society, with all its pain and joy, with its perils and consolations, is strikingly different. Luhmann is not blind to the suffering that “exists on a massive scale and in such forms that are beyond description” in today’s world but, rather than following the impulse to react to these circumstances with shock and awe, theory (as opposed to philosophy and ideology) takes on an alternative stance: nec spe nec metu ( neither hope nor fear), an ancient Latin phrase that Luhmann somewhat playfully uses to advocate “a kind of stoic attitude” in social theory, and thus, if such an extension may be allowed, towards the world in general.

The Stoic aspect of Luhmann theory allows the theoretician to develop a potential for tolerating the otherwise intolerable. The insight of theory into its inability to take control in the world and steer society towards a land of milk and honey does not lead to mental paralysis or defeatism, but to relaxation and alleviation. Dramatically put, one can say that nonironic reason hardens whereas ironic reason lightens. It is not tragic that political decisions cannot essentially decide anything about the future of society or mankind; it is rather a form of pressure release. That no ultimately decisive decisions are possible makes coming to a decision less difficult, not more so. “Stoic politics” will hardly become fundamentalist; there is not enough at stake. Room for contingency leaves, metaphorically speaking, some breathing room. Or, ironically speaking, theory helps us to see – and do- things more philosophically.

Given the non-ecstatic equanimity that theorists may enjoy in their theoretical communication, they are well positioned to enrich society with the same. Theory operates with a radical Gelassenheit, or intellectual and communicational ease. It is, after all, only theory. This may be called its Daoist aspect. Thus, if Luhmann is not able to come up with a Kuschelecke, he at least offers a sort of yoga mat.

The Radical Luhmann by Hans-Georg Moeller, Columbia University Press, N.Y. 2012

1 comment:

  1. see also: