A Foreign Sound: Luhmann, *The Reality of the Mass Media*

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Jeffrey Rubard

Aug 11, 2020, 1:30:50 AM8/11/20
Differentiation as a
Doubling of Reality

Whatever we know about our society, or indeed about the world in
which we live, we know through the mass media.1

This is true not
only of our knowledge of society and history but also of our knowledge of nature. What we know about the stratosphere is the same as
what Plato knows about Atlantis: we've heard tell of it. Or, as Horatio
puts it: 'So have I heard, and do in part believe it.'2

On the other
hand, we know so much about the mass media that we are not able
to trust these sources. Our way of dealing with this is to suspect that
there is manipulation at work, and yet no consequences of any import ensue because knowledge acquired from the mass media merges
together as if of its own accord into a self-reinforcing structure. Even
if all knowledge were to carry a warning that it was open to doubt,
it would still have to be used as a foundation, as a starting point.
Unlike in the gothic novels of the eighteenth century, the solution to
the problem cannot be found in someone secretly pulling strings behind the scenes, however much even sociologists themselves would
like to believe this to be the case. What we are dealing with - and
this is the theory to be elaborated in what follows - is an effect of the
functional differentiation of modern society. This effect can be comprehended, it can be the subject of theoretical reflection. But we are
not talking about a mystery that would be solved once it is made
known. Rather, one could say that modern society has an 'Eigenvalue'
or an 'Eigenbehaviour'3

- in other words, recursively stabilized functional mechanisms, which remain stable even when their genesis and
their mode of functioning have been revealed.
In what follows, the term 'mass media' includes all those institutions of society which make use of copying technologies to disseminate communication. This means principally books, magazines and
newspapers manufactured by the printing press, but also all kinds
of photographic or electronic copying procedures, provided that
they generate large quantities of products whose target groups are
as yet undetermined. Also included in the term is the dissemination
of communication via broadcasting, provided that it is generally
accessible and does not merely serve to maintain a telephone connection between individual participants. The mass production of
manuscripts from dictation, as in medieval writing rooms, does
not qualify for inclusion, nor does the public accessibility of the
room in which the communication takes place - in other words,
not public lectures, theatrical productions, exhibitions, or concerts,
though the term does include the circulation of such performances
via film or diskette. This delimitation may appear somewhat arbitrary, but the basic idea is that it is the mechanical manufacture of
a product as the bearer of communication - but not writing itself -
which has led to the differentiation of a particular system of the
mass media. Thus, the technology of dissemination plays the same
kind of role as that played by the medium of money in the differentiation of the economy: it merely constitutes a medium which makes
formations of forms possible. These formations in turn, unlike the
medium itself, constitute the communicative operations which enable the differentiation and operational closure of the system.
The crucial point at any rate is that no interaction among those
co-present can take place between sender and receivers. Interaction
is ruled out by the interposition of technology, and this has farreaching consequences which define for us the concept of mass
media. Exceptions are possible (though never with all participants);
however, they come across as staged and are indeed handled as
such in broadcasting studios. They do not alter in the slightest the
technologically conditioned necessity for interruption of contact.
The interruption of direct contact, on the one hand, ensures high
levels of freedom of communication. A surplus of possibilities for
communication thus arises which can only be regulated within the
system, by means of self-organization and the system's own constructions of reality. On the other hand, two selecting factors are at
work: the extent of willingness to transmit and the amount of interest in tuning in, which cannot be coordinated centrally. The
organizations which produce mass media communication are dependent upon assumptions concerning acceptability.4

This leads not
only to the standardization but also to the differentiation of their
programmes, or at any rate to a standardization not tailored to
individuals. This, however, is precisely how individual participants
have the chance to get what they want, or what they believe they
need to know in their own milieu (for example, as politicians or
teachers), from the range of programmes on offer. The mode of
operation of the mass media is thus subject to external structural
conditions which place limits on what they are able to realize.
We can speak of the reality of the mass media in a dual sense.
Our title is intended to mark this dual meaning and is therefore to
be understood as ambivalent. The unity of this twofold meaning is
the point which is to be elaborated in the following discussion.
The reality of the mass media, their real reality, as we might say,
consists in their own operations. Things are printed and broadcast.
Things are read. Programmes are received. Numerous communications involving preparation and subsequent discussion closely surround this activity. However, the process of dissemination is only
possible on the basis of technologies. The way in which these technologies work structures and limits what is possible as mass communication. This has to be taken into account in any theory of the
mass media. Nonetheless, we do not want to regard the work of
these machines, nor indeed their mechanical or electronic internal
workings, as an operation within the system of the mass media.
Not everything which is a condition of possibility of systems operations can be a part of the operational sequences of the system
itself. (This is also true, of course, of living beings and indeed of
any autopoietic system.) It makes good sense, therefore, to regard
the real reality of the mass media as the communications which go
on within and through them. We have no doubt that such communications do in fact take place (even though, from an epistemological point of view, all statements, including these, are the statements
of an observer and to this extent have their own reality in the operations of the observer).
Whereas we exclude - notwithstanding their importance - tech-
nical apparatuses, the 'materialities of communication',5

from the
operation of communicating because they are not what is being
uttered, we do include reception (be it comprehending or mis-comprehending). Communication only comes about when someone
watches, listens, reads - and understands to the extent that further
communication could follow on. The mere act of uttering something, then, does not, in and of itself, constitute communication.
On the other hand, it is difficult in the case of the mass media (in
contrast to interaction that occurs among those co-present) to
determine the target group involved in each instance. To a large
extent, therefore, obvious presence has to be substituted by assumptions. This is especially true if the process of turning comprehension/
mis-comprehension into further communication within or outside
the system of the mass media is also to be taken into account. However, this gap in competence does have the advantage that recursive
loops do not get drawn too tightly, that communication does not
immediately become blocked by failures and contradictions, and
that, instead, it is able to seek out a willing audience and to experiment with possibilities.

These conceptual outlines refer to the operations that actually
occur by which the system reproduces itself and its difference to
the environment. However, we can speak of the reality of the mass
media in another sense, that is, in the sense of what appears to
them, or through them to others, to be reality. Put in Kantian terms:
the mass media generate a transcendental illusion. According to
this understanding, the activity of the mass media is regarded not
simply as a sequence of operations, but rather as a sequence of
observations or, to be more precise, of observing operations. In
order to come to this understanding of the mass media, then, we
have to observe their observing. For the approach introduced first
above, first-order observation is sufficient, as if we were dealing
with facts. For the second approach, it is necessary to adopt the
attitude of a second-order observer, an observer of observers.6

In order to hold on to this distinction, we can speak (always with
reference to an observer) of a first reality and of a second (or observed) reality. What we now observe is a doubling of reality which
takes place in the observed system of the mass media. It does indeed communicate - about something. About something else or
about itself. What we have, therefore, is a system which is capable
of distinguishing between self-reference and other-reference
(Fremdreferenz). Within the terms of a classical discourse of truth
as well as of ordinary, everyday understandings of truth, it would
be interesting at this point to know whether that which the media
report is true or not true; or if it is half true and half not true because it is being 'manipulated'. But how are we to tell? This may be
possible in isolated cases for one or another observer and in particular for the systems being reported on; but for the mass daily
flow of communications it is, of course, impossible. This issue will
be kept firmly outside the discussion that follows. We shall stick to
our starting point, namely, that the mass media, as observing systems, are forced to distinguish between self-reference and otherreference. They cannot do otherwise. They cannot simply consider
themselves to be the truth - and therein lies a sufficient guarantee
for the time being. As a result, they must construct reality - another reality, different from their own.
This may at first seem completely trivial. It would not even be
worth mentioning, if this kind of 'constructivism' were not a topic
of heated debate at the level of epistemology and even for the mass
media themselves.7

However, if all knowledge must be acquired on
the basis of a distinction between self-reference and other-reference, it is also the case that all knowledge (and therefore all reality)
is a construction. For this distinction between self-reference and
other-reference cannot exist in the system's environment (what
would be 'self' here, and what would be 'other'?), but rather only
within the system itself.
We therefore opt for operational constructivism, not only here
but also in the realm of epistemology.8

Constructivist theories maintain that cognitive systems are not in a position to distinguish between the conditions of existence of real objects and the conditions
of their own knowledge because they have no access to such real
objects other than through knowledge. It is certainly the case that
this defect can be corrected at the level of second-order observation, the observation of cognitive operations of other systems. In
that instance, it is possible to see how their (other systems') frames
shape their knowledge. However, this merely leads to a recurrence
of the problem at the level of second-order observation. Even ob-
servers of other observers cannot distinguish the conditions of existence of these latter observers from the conditions of knowing
that what they are dealing with are particular, self-conditioning
Even given the divergence between first-order and second-order
observation, this distinction does not remove the basic premise of
constructivism but rather confirms it by referring back to itself,
that is, 'autologically'. Regardless of how cognition reflects upon
itself, the primary reality lies not in 'the world out there', but rather
in the cognitive operations themselves,9

because the latter are only
possible under two conditions, namely, that they form a selfreproducing system and that this system can only observe by distinguishing between self-reference and other-reference. These
conditions are to be thought of as empirical (not as transcendental). This also means they can only be fulfilled on the basis of
numerous other assumptions which cannot be guaranteed through
the system itself. Operational constructivism has no doubt that an
environment exists. If it did, of course, the concept of the system's
boundary, which presupposes that there is another side, would make
no sense either. The theory of operational constructivism does not
lead to a 'loss of world', it does not deny that reality exists. However, it assumes that the world is not an object but is rather a
horizon, in the phenomenological sense. It is, in other words, inaccessible. And that is why there is no possibility other than to
construct reality and perhaps to observe observers as they construct
reality. Granted, it may be the case that different observers then
have the impression that they are seeing 'the same thing' and that
theorists of transcendentalism are only able to explain this through
the construction of transcendental a prioris - this invisible hand
which keeps knowledge in order in spite of individuality. But in
fact this too is a construction, because it is simply not possible without the respective system-specific distinction between self-reference
and other-reference.

What is meant by 'reality' can therefore only be an internal correlate of the system's operations - and not, say, a characteristic
which attaches to objects of knowledge additionally to that which
distinguishes them in terms of individuality or kind. Reality, then,
is nothing more than an indicator of successful tests for consistency
in the system. Reality is produced within the system by means of
sense-making. It arises whenever inconsistencies which might emerge
from the part played by memory in the system's operations are
resolved - for example, by the construction of space and time as
dimensions with various points at which different perceptions or
memories can be localized without conflicting with one another. If
reality is expressly emphasized in the communication (a 'real' lemon,
a 'real' experience), then what is simultaneously emphasized is that
doubts are possible and perhaps even appropriate. The more complex the system becomes and the more it exposes itself to irritations, the more variety the world can permit without relinquishing
any reality - and the more the system can afford to work with
negations, with fictions, with 'merely analytical' or statistical assumptions which distance it from the world as it is.
In this case, however, every statement about reality is tied to
system references which cannot be further generalized
(transcendentalized). So our question now has the form: how do
mass media construct reality? Or, to put it in a more complicated
way (and related to one's own self-reference!): how can we (as sociologists, for example) describe the reality of their construction of
reality? The question is not: how do the mass media distort reality
through the manner of their representations? For that would presuppose an ontological, available, objectively accessible reality that
can be known without resort to construction; it would basically
presuppose the old cosmos of essences. Scientists might indeed be
of the opinion that they have a better knowledge of reality than the
way it is represented in the mass media, committed as these are to
'popularization'. But that can only mean comparing one's own construction to another. One may do that, encouraged by a society
which believes scientific descriptions to be authentic knowledge of
reality. But this has no bearing whatever on the possibility of first
asking: how do mass media construct reality?
Media research in communication studies faces a similar question when it describes the increasing influence of the mass media
on social events over the past few decades.10

What ought to be
taken, by their own standards, as success is restylized as a crisis.
But the description as crisis would presuppose that it is possible to
react by changing structures. Such a possibility does not seem likely,
however. The crisis does not concern the way the mass media operate, only their self-description, the lack of an adequate reflexive
theory. In order to respond to this challenge, it will not simply be a
matter of starting from the assumption of an increase in influence
over the past few decades - much as it is conspicuous, for example,
that companies no longer refer to society via their product alone
but also, as with mass media suggestion, via 'culture' and 'ethics'.
Even the invention of the rotary printing press is not the decisive
caesura, but only one step in the process of intensification of effects. Observation and critique of mass media effects had already
become commonplace long before.11

What is needed is a broader
period of historical observation, basically reaching back to when
the printing press came into its own; and what is needed above all
are theoretical tools which are abstract enough to make a place for
the theory of the mass media within a general theory of modern
society. In what follows this occurs by way of the assumption that
the mass media are one of the function systems of modern society,
which, like all others, owes its increased effectiveness to the differentiation, operational closure and autopoietic autonomy of the system concerned.
Moreover, the dual meaning of reality both as an operation that
actually occurs, that is, is observable, and as the reality of society
and its world which is generated in this way, makes it clear that the
concepts of operational closure, autonomy and construction by no
means rule out causal influences from outside. Especially if it has to
be assumed that what one is dealing with in each instance is a constructed reality, then this peculiar form of production fits particularly well with the notion of an external influence. This was
demonstrated very well by the successful military censorship of reports about the Gulf War. All the censorship had to do was operate
according to the ways of the media; it had to contribute to achieving the desired construction and exclude independent information,
which would hardly have been obtainable anyway. Since the war
was staged as a media event from the start and since the parallel
action of filming or interpreting data simultaneously served military and news production purposes, de-coupling would have
brought about an almost total loss of information in any case. So
in order to exercise censorship, not much more was required than
to take the media's chronic need for information into account and
provide them with new information for the necessary continuation
of programmes.12

Thus, what was mainly shown was the military
machinery in operation. The fact that the victims' side of the war
was almost completely erased in the process aroused considerable
criticism; but most likely only because this completely contradicted
the picture built up by the media themselves of what a war should
look like.

Niklas Luhmann, *The Reality of the Mass Media*
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