Excerpt: In a recent essay that addresses the epistemological implications of systems theory, Niklas Luhmann maintains that a variety of empirical sciences, from physics and physiology to linguistics and sociology, have “been forced to proceed from the immediate object of their research to questions involving cognition.” In Die Wissenschaft der Gesellschaft, he describes the same phenomenon in terms of a move toward a second- order cybernetics that observes observations; the question is no longer “what is there? – but: how does an observer construct what he con¬structs in order to connect further observations.” This shift – from the ontological to the epistemological, if you will – can also be observed in the course of Luhmann’s own career. With his early 1980s, self-pro¬claimed “paradigm shift, ” Luhmann’s reflections on the workings of society moved far beyond his earlier, somewhat technocratic, Parsonian functionalism. This shift in Luhmann’s thinking was precipitated by his adoption of Humberto Maturana’s notion of autopoiesis, a term coined to refer to the self-reproduction of living systems. In Soziale Systeme, published in 1984, Luhmann adapted the concept – defined as the internal and recursive self-reproduction of a system’s basic elements – to describe the autonomous and self-referential operations of social |4| systems as well. Since then, Luhmann has increasingly been “forced” to entertain basic epistemological questions from the point of view of a radicalized sociology of knowledge. The question presents itself: Why should literary scholars be interested in a social theory that seems headed toward the ever receding vanishing point of epistemological self-reflection? Our answer to the question is motivated by theoretical concerns. In introducing the Luhmann of the past decade we are guided by an interest not in systems theory’s poten¬tial benefits for the practice of literary studies in the narrow sense, but rather in its ramifications for understanding what has evolved during the past three decades into the genre called “literary theory, ” or simply “theory. ” We find it helpful to assume that the various intellectual initia¬tives we tend to subsume under this name constitute what Luhmann calls a “function specific reflection theory,” a scientific subsystem in its own right that deals specifically with problems arising at the level of self-observation, not only in literary studies, but in a great number of related disciplines as well. Within a system that specializes in, as it were, “third order” problems of an interdisciplinary nature, literature no longer occupies a privileged position (i.e., as the defining object of a dis¬cipline), but functions merely as one focal point among others where such problems crystallize and can be studied paradigmatically.
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