Second-order Cybernetics is the Analytic Discourse — Işık Barış Fidaner

Dynamistical Echology strongly resonates with Niklas Luhmann’s Ecological Communication (1985) [1]. The key concept that bridges Luhmann to psychoanalysis is self-reference.

Self-reference recalls the Master-Signifier S1 that is famously a self-referential element that blindly repeats itself in the Master’s discourse, which is why it’s also called the empty signifier or the floating signifier.

But the self-referentiality of S1 is tainted by the particularity of the signifier itself. To distill the pure element of self-referentiality, one must focus on the truth of the Master’s discourse, that is, the barred subject $ as the agent of the hysteric’s discourse. The Master-Signifier S1 is self-referential only because it contains the hysteria of $ that fuels the desire to speak and dwell in language [2].

Although there is a traditional incompatibility between the Master who rules and the hysteric who questions his rule, this incoordination has been gradually transforming in the last 50 years, producing increasingly hystericized masters who are able to utilize their hysterical disruptiveness to further strengthen their dominance. Lacan articulated this development by formulating the capitalist discourse, in which S1 and $ switch places in the Master’s discourse. In Luhmann’s work this new hysterical mastery takes the name of “self-referential autopoiesis” [3].

Luhmann makes a crucial distinction between first-order observation and second-order observation. First-order observation is a naive ontology of reality. In the contemporary philosophical scene, this comprises the fashionable “new materialisms” and “object-oriented ontologies”. The naive pretension to establish “objective reality” relies on fetishistic disavowal and is worthy of the Master’s discourse.

Luhmann prefers the second-order observation which is able to observe the self-referentiality of another observer instead of merely being immersed in its own self-referentiality in observing its environment. This formulation immediately recalls the analytic discourse which applies the hysteric’s discourse a quarter turn. The hysteric is immersed in his/her own self-referentiality whereas the analyst is able to observe the self-referential hysteric. In Luhmann’s terms, the analyst is able to see that “the hysteric cannot see what (s)he cannot see” which is a brilliant formulation of the psychoanalytic symptom as a blind spot.

The meteoric rise of environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s was concurrent with the famous May 1968 protests that marked the beginning of the global transformation that shifted the emphasis of the capitalist rule from prohibition to permissiveness [4]. Lacan famously said that the 1968 protesters were naive hysterics who were effectively demanding a new Master. The permissive new Master who replaced the traditional prohibitive Master’s discourse has two alternative referents: Either it refers to the power-knowledge of the University discourse that indirectly feeds from the self-referentiality of hysteria, or it might refer to the direct “self-referential autopoiesis” of the hysterical masters in the capitalist discourse who are worse.

Echoing Lacan’s judgment about the 1968 protesters, Luhmann’s verdict about the environmentalists was that they were first-order observers: They were naive ontologists who were immersed in their own self-referentiality. In other words, they were posturing as Masters but their truth was hysteria.

Like the Lacanian analyst who took the hysteric subject as his/her interlocutor, Luhmann advised the ecologists not to assume the position of the protester who directly observes the environment and merely gathers its statistics, but to “observe the protester” to see that “the protester cannot see what (s)he cannot see”; in other words, to observe and interpret his/her symptom dynamistically, which makes the ecologist into an echologist.

Işık Barış Fidaner is a computer scientist with a PhD from Boğaziçi University, İstanbul. Admin of Yersiz Şeyler, Editor of Žižekian Analysis, Curator of Görce Writings. Twitter: @BarisFidaner


[1] Thanks to Guilherme Preger for pointing this out. See “Dynamistics and Dynamistical Significance”, “Echology, Echosystems, Echocide”

[2] See “Histeri şikayetten şikayetten şikayettir”

[3] About hysterical masters of Lacan’s capitalist discourse, see “Lacan on the discourse of capitalism; Critical prospects” Bert Olivier

[4] “Beyond Ecological Crisis: Niklas Luhmann’s Theory of Social Systems” Hannes Bergthaller

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