The Form of the Distinction

One of the main advancements in recent communication and systems theory is the notion that communication is concerned with distinctions. Gregory Bateson’s description of information as a “difference that makes a difference” to a system (in his “Steps to an Ecology of Mind”) can, on an abstract level, also be found in Shannon and Weaver’s information theory (“The Mathematical Theory of Communication”), separating a signal carrying information from noise in the channel, as well as from other possible information. Niklas Luhmann then built his sociological systems theory (explicated e.g. in his “Social Systems”) on two sets of differences: Firstly, he described society as being differentiated by distinctions between functional systems, such as the economy, judicial system, or religions. Secondly, within these systems, he made out codes of distinctions in operational communication. Examples include distinctions between payment and non-payment for the economy, or lawful and unlawful for the judicial system.

The analysis of distinctions is depending on a clear and effective way to express the distinctions it wants to take into the focus of research. Language as a medium is not optimal for this, as it does not allow for the parallel expression of multiple distinctions at once, and it has no way to include the implicit other side of its statements, i.e. to say what is not said or to write the unwritten. In this sense, language is inherently positive, to the extent that even a negative statement is positive in its negativity. In order to gain the ability to discuss the other side of what is made explicit in communication, Niklas Luhmann already started to visualize distinctions using a notation developed by George Spencer Brown in his “Laws of Form”. There, the basic form of the distinction is visualized as follows:

The form of the distinction.

The form of the distinction.

The form on the right hand side of the equation sign is shorthand for a full enclosure being separated from the outside. It can – and regularly is – be represented by circles or squares, or any other form that is fully closed. However, this shorthand is convenient when it comes to more complex forms, with multiple layers of differentiation affecting each other. It is important to note, though, that this shorthand still represents a full separation between an inside and an outside. In his Laws of Form, Spencer Brown writes that “distinction is perfect continence”. This means that what is on the inside of a distinction is only on the inside, and definitely not to be found on the outside of the distinction. Moreover, what is on the inside of a distinction is fully enclosed by the distinction, and cannot itself be separated to be partly inside and partly outside of it. For this, further distinctions, and therefore further observations, would be required.

Dirk Baecker (e.g. in his “Form und Formen der Kommunikation”) then used the calculus proposed by Spencer Brown for the analysis of complex social phenomena, including the notion of the reentry, to which we will come in detail later. But first of all, I want to locate the analyses I will attempt in this blog in the tradition of communication theories viewing communication as being comprised of distinctions rather than humans, persons, or actors.


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