The Time of communication

von Peter Fuchs (Juli 2002)

Communication is an idea or a concept that seems to have dominated the century now coming to a close. And it is not very difficult to foresee that it will be one of the key-concepts of the coming third millennium. The interesting question for sociology is: why has so much attention been paid to communication? Is this incredible flowering, this enormous boom due to a hope that the improvement of communication may also signify an improvement in peaceful and meaningful relations among human beings? Does this concept concern a deep desire of humankind, an unattainable desire for a sort of fusion between the individuals that we call human beings? Or more mundanely: is the success of this concept only a reflection of the simple fact that men cannot live without talking to one another?

Niklas Luhmann has given a quite different answer to this question.[1] His essential idea is that communication may be defined as the sole, the unique, social operation. Outside communication, there may be consciousnesses, elephants, dogs, stones, human beings etc., but not anything like society.[2] Luhmann's central discovery is the idea of this rigorous (if not to say: absolute) separation or uncoupling of social (i.e. communicative) systems from an environment that does not contain social operations. This idea contravenes the deeply-rooted conscious- or human-centred tradition of Europe. If Luhmann is right, then this tradition is transformed into a spiritual world. In any case, it follows that we have to discuss Niklas Luhmann's concept of communication carefully.[3]


To begin with, communication is conceived as a phenomenon that is surrounded not only by conscious systems, that is, by an environment of psychical, conscious operations such as thinking and feeling, but also by human bodies and other objects. It is conceived as an operation sui generis, as basically non-conscious because conscious systems are unable to inform other conscious systems about their inner, unique states. They can talk about their inner worlds. But the language, the signs, and the symbols they use are fundamentally not unique, not private.[4] No conscious system is able to communicate its intimacy, its inner world (or to use Rilke's term: its Weltinnenraum), unless it uses symbols or signs that are not intimate, not of the stuff of their innermost parts.[5] No thought or emotion has ever transcended the barrier of the human scull.

We can see eyes, mouths, the motions of hands and legs, the motions of the face-muscles, but we whatever see we see internally. We cannot exceed the limits of our consciousness. We always look at internal margins. We are in a strict sense insiders. We are unique, i.e., isolated, systems. We need a technology to establish contacts among us and to co-ordinate our behaviour. We need something like a medium on the outside of this rigorously-closed system we call consciousness. This medium is communication. If we analyse it, we see a loosely coupled set of elements (communications) of the same type.[6] The form of these elements is a combination, synthesis, (or syndosis) of three selections in a unity. These selections are information, utterance (Mitteilung), and understanding (Verstehen).

To explain the function of these constituents it may be useful to begin our discussion with a misconception. The source of error here is the assumption that human beings are the operators of communication. For the moment, however, it will be advantageous for us to proceed as if the assumption were right. Later we will correct the error. This correction will depend on the specific time-treatment of social systems.

In any event, information (in this provisional sense of the word) means the selection of whatever an utterance concerns. I say, "I'm hungry!" and in saying this I have selected (or I can be observed as someone who had selected) one of the feelings on which my consciousness can reflect. There are countless emotions, thoughts, and ideas to choose from, but I observe myself as a person who had chosen this (to be hungry) and not that (to have fallen in love or got ill or angry, etc.). Information is this reference to the world, seen as an outside in which differences take place, which make differences in systems.[7] Hunger (in this sense) is a kind of "external thing" in a world to which communication refers. In observing myself, I notice a difference. In distinguishing it in a meaning-directed manner (thinking it, saying it), I constitute a world in which feelings of hunger are real. A kind of object (hunger) is created, and it follows that we can talk about it.

However, it is impossible yet to hear or see the information I have chosen because my selection requires more than merely a difference (or a syndrome of differences) for further information processing. I have to find a way to express this difference. I need a further selection, which we will call utterance. This selection is defined as the form of behaviour (saying, showing, singing, crying, writing, etc.) that envelopes the information (that I am hungry). Information has to be materialised. It must be seen or heard.[8] Thus, the utterance is the expression of information. It "incorporates" the information as the material aspect of communication.[9] The utterance, we may then say, is something like the flesh on the bones of information.

After all, the operation of understanding can be conceived as an observation that is guided by the difference between the operation "selecting information" and the operation "selecting the form of utterance with which the information is presented to a sphere of perceivability". For instance, I can point at a sausage, rub my stomach - and an observer will see that I want to show: "I am not fasting, I am hungry." Just as well, I may say, "Pardon me, madam! Would you please be so kind as to pass me some of these delicious sausages?" Again here, I only want to provide information about my state of hunger.

However, there is an important difference. If I am visiting someone and I point at a sausage while rubbing my stomach, this person might think that I am ill-mannered. Perhaps she will never invite me again. If I were at a sausage stand, it would not make sense to say: "Pardon me madam! Would you please be so kind as to pass me some of these delicious sausages?" This woman would think: "What, for heavens sake, does he really want?" In this case, she tries to observe the difference between the information (he wants to eat because he is hungry) and the form of the utterance. Moreover, she tries to attach behaviour, i.e., compute a meaningful reaction. She is, we might say, selecting an understanding. Thus, the selection of understanding may be seen as an observation that takes into account and compares the selection of information with the selection of an utterance in order to get instructions for a reaction. The woman's mood at the sausage stand may remain unchanged, and I will only get a lukewarm meal. But it is equally possible that she will begin to like me because I am able to speak so nicely.

Nevertheless, we have said that our description is not perfect. We have argued that we can see (or know something about) the consciousnesses of acting persons. But Luhmann's social systems theory excludes this possibility. Conscious systems register only surfaces. They do not have instruments to perceive the inner worlds of other conscious systems. And if they try to report their own inner states, they do not use a non-private or non-idiosyncratic language or repertory of symbols. They either have to be silent or, if they speak, to use a generalised, (non-private) medium. Therefore, the three selections of communications cannot be managed by conscious systems. They need a way of their own to arrive at a synthesis.


This way is combined with a concept of time that is limited to a concept of events or (in a literal sense) eventuality. The basic idea here is that conscious systems as well as social systems consist of constantly passing events. The events comprising conscious systems are thoughts (or perceptions), and those constituting social systems are communications. Both are very short events. They occur and then they pass. There is no time for them to regard what they really are, no time to register their own identity. A thought appears - and is incapable of observing itself. A communication appears--and is incapable of observing itself.

Those events that we call operations of conscious or social systems cannot reduplicate themselves. They always observe something--and themselves as something too. They are unable to see their seeing, to hear their hearing, to observe (at the moment that they happen) their operation of observing. We could say that they cover their seeing by the sight they open. They do not have an access to themselves. One could also say that they do not make a difference for themselves because the operations are filled with what is seen, or (to place us within the older tradition of phenomenology) with intentions. We have no idea of an empty operation. With Freud, we can say that the operations we speak of are projections of surfaces.

Thus, it is necessary that (other) events of the same type identify the difference that an already-passed event makes. The problem of event-based systems is the management of this disappearance, of this transience. We can call the temporal form of this management autopoiesis. By modifying the biological implications of this concept, we can say that autopoiesis is the designation for a temporal network of events that observe other events of the same type which cannot observe themselves. Hence, there are no substantial or "Cartesian" events in conscious or social systems. There is only a kind of retroactivity, a backward observing, or a belatedness (Derrida's différance or the form of Freud's "too late.")

Let us consider an example:

My wife asks me one of the most dangerous of questions: "Do you really love me?"

I do not know the reason for this question nor what my wife is precisely thinking when she asks me.[10] Nor does my wife know what I am thinking when I hear this question and see her face as a giant question mark. Nor shall I ever know why she singled out this question. Thus, the future of the event (of what has really happened) will depend on the next utterance or the next event interpreted as an utterance.[11] Now we are in a position to complete our train of thought and list some possible answers:

I shrug my shoulders.

I say: "I don't know exactly. But, in any event, I like you."

I ask: "Do you really love me?"

I ask: "What do you mean by the word really?"

I say: "Love is a very difficult concept. You should read the book on love by Niklas Luhmann."

I quote, with a twinkle in my eye: "Shall I compare thee to a summerday?"

I think there are countless (and dangerous) ways of reacting to my wife's explosive question. The decisive point, however, is that my reaction describes the identity of the preceding event. This description is totally independent of the consciousness that is necessarily provided as a noise-making processor. Yet, it is unable to control the communication that depends on time or delay. Let's return to our example and consider only a few of my wife's possible answers (examples 7 and 8):

I shrug my shoulders. - A) She slaps me. B) She kisses me. C) She says: "Aha!!!" D) She throws my paperback out the window ...

I say: "I don't know exactly, but in any event I like you." - A) She says: "Its more than enough after the 25 years we've spent together." B) She says: "I hate you." C) She slaps me. D) She says: "It is better for you to leave, before I throw you out the window."

The game continues indefinitely. At any moment, the events that have passed acquire a new identity, a new meaning. Considering these circumstances, we can conclude that the three selections we have mentioned (information, utterance, and understanding) are bound to time. Only the succeeding events decide what is to be seen as information. My wife slaps me, and so my shrug is described as a difference that makes the difference of an insult. The information is interpreted as: "Your question was stupid." My wife does not embrace me, instead she hits me. Thus, my shrug is interpreted as the selection of the wrong form (of the expression): "It is an unimportant question for me because it is a stupid question." After all, the difference between the information (stupidity) and its form (shrugging) is marked as an insult. Understanding communication is this "marking as." It is, so to speak, the contiguous event itself.

Unfortunately, there is still a very difficult problem: all autopoietic events fall within the scope of this unusual temporality. Systems that use communications as their fundamental units are (like consciousness) backward-oriented machines. The most important (but also impenetrable) consequence is that no social system has access to its own actuality. We may also say that they are blind to their own presence. They are reality-constituting systems because they never find their present essence, their intrinsicality, or their substance. They have to declare what has taken place, and they are unable to describe what their reality is. We can call them systems of différance (to use Derrida's term) or postponed systems.

In a special sense, these meaning-based systems are non-Cartesian units because they are neither subjects nor objects. They are not something like specifiable units in time. Perhaps we should call them a-jects or un-jects (Un-jekte). However, a-jects or un-jects cannot be observed with the mere instrument of a two-valued logic. We would need to develop a polyvalent logic, a logic of non-presence, of the future, or virtuality (in an unfashionable sense of the word). Furthermore, the result of these temporal considerations is that sociology only describes descriptions that describe descriptions etc. For very good reasons, this domain of knowledge has been called a constructional science that cannot make meaningful ontological statements.

For our purposes, it suffices to state that social systems consist of communications, and that they have to build images (imagines), descriptions, models or constructions of themselves that are (in den modal logic sense of the word) contingent. Thus, sociology observes how social systems observe themselves - and (this is a crucial point) sociology observes itself as a social system, as an autopoiesis of communications that produce communications that produce communications - and nothing else. In analysing social systems, sociology analyses the form and structures of communication, and it does this as a communication-based system.

Therefore the theory that governs these relations is itself a self-referential theory. Its observations proceed under the conditions of the observed phenomenon, insofar as the observed phenomenon is an observing system, too.[12]

It might be worthwhile to look at different types of social systems and identify some implications of the temporality discussed above.


Niklas Luhmann differentiates between three levels of system formation:[13]

(1) Interaction, (2) organisation, and (3) (world) society.

Interactions as well as organisations and society[14] create their boundaries themselves.

(1) Interactions are communications under the condition of the mutual perceivability of the conscious processors in their environments.[15] Furthermore, they are systems of actuality or presence with very short memories. They have only a short-term storage, and they cannot fall back on a long (so to speak saturated) history. In other words, they are systems with hardly any historical records. There is only a little time for them to form structures, to secure internal guidance, and not lose track. Furthermore, they have to construct their volatile identity post festum, and cannot grasp themselves as identities or substances. Therefore, they need a quick way to define their boundaries and central constraints, although they have recourse only to their own resources.

The solution is that interactions, seen as communicative systems that do not include consciousness, always decide if a person is to be treated as present or not. They are presence-managing systems. We should note that the conscious environment might perceive that there are persons enough to speak with (for example on a bus, in a train, in an elevator, in a store, etc.), but that the interaction defines which of these persons may be considered as present. It circumscribes a specific domain of persons from among those perceivably present who are not addressed or are not important enough for the actual process of an interaction.

Let us consider a few examples:

I am talking with a student while the housekeeper is cleaning my push-button-phone. Perhaps the student and I have already said "Hello!" Nevertheless, we continue our discussion without keeping in mind the housekeeper's presence. He is not there though he is there. He does not participate, though we see him and he sees that we see him. The interaction ex-communicates the housekeeper.

My wife is going shopping with me. I need new trousers. In the store, she says to the salesperson: "My husband needs new trousers" and then she discusses my size (or other aspects of my corporeality) with the salesperson. I am not present for this interaction.[16] I am there but not there. The communication revolves around me, but does not include my presence.

The mother of a handicapped boy tells me some details of his problems. She does this although the boy is sitting in front of me and is able to report these details much better than she does. He is present for our perception, but communication does not treat him (at this moment) as a social address.

The type of social system we call interaction constructs its identity by manipulating the scheme of presence/non-presence in terms of the conscious evidences of perceiving systems (such as human beings). Its temporality produces short-term identities.[17] Moreover, in a sense, a temporal disorder is installed by floating or diffuse identities. This level of system-constitution is very important because interaction can be seen as the importation of microdiversity into social systems. We can even say that processes of self-organisation are necessitated by this microdiversity.

(2) If social systems depend on long-lasting identities, however, we call them organisations. These systems have to identify themselves by boundaries that guarantee a sort of reliability over time. This reliability is managed by the difference between the formal memberships of persons (or juridical persons like institutions) and the rest of the world. This difference creates two kinds of social addresses: inside-addresses (defined by membership) and outside-addresses (other persons or organisations). The inside-addresses are in a sense relatively stable communicative structures (bundles of characteristic expectation-patterns). They are needed as the premises of the autopoiesis of organisations, which can be interpreted as a network of decisions that produce decisions. As far as the autopoietic elements are concerned, there are (as we had said above) only passing events (decisions); as far as the organisation is concerned, there are the communicative references to the members as longer lasting units (social addresses).

These units are organisational structures that correspond to the conscious environment. Again, we find that the importation of disorder, noise, or microdiversity is caused by informal interactions. They seem to be the screen on which the formal communications (decisions) of the system appear, and vice versa. The crucial point is that all organisational communications are observable as decisions, whether they are informal or formal. This creates enormous pressure within organisations. All interactions and behaviour can be observed as decisions. In addition, any action described as a decision can be seen as conforming to or deviating from the history of the system's decisions. The member's consciousnesses have to be highly sensitive to these possibilities of observation.

For the purposes of our discussion, we would like to emphasise that organisations (such as interactions) have to create their identity (their form) by means of a special method that "tames" their transient elements. Again, we can see here the need for the management of time, a cunning combination of structure and event.

(3) The world-society is the only social system whose boundaries are differentiated according to the scheme: communication/non-communication. One side consists of (system-) communications, which are the elements that produce communications and nothing else; the other (the environment) may be whatever it wants to be - with the exception of communication.[18] All social structures must be constituted within the system. Outside these processes and structures, which depend on transient events (communications), there is nothing social. The environment of society is completely non-social. It is the world minus communication. We should remember Luhmann's main thesis that human beings or (in Luhmann's terms) conscious systems do not belong to society. They are--and this is the most surprising point of his theory--non-social, too. They are external to the system of society, which does not include consciousness. Society is a non-conscious system.

In any event, society is seen as an unconscious and singular system. To gain structure, guidance, and duration, it can only use its own elements, which are transient events. Society, just like organisation and interaction, has the problem of gaining structure from a constantly-flowing temporality that provides no fixed identities or firm substances. The solution is multi-leveled.

Basically, the acquisition of structure depends on the constitution of a memory for a memory-free system. All autopoietic systems (consciousnesses, social systems, and living systems) are based on events that provide no storage. Events have the quality of a constant dissolution, or more precisely: they have no quality at all. Autopoiesis (at least in meaning-processing systems) is defined by this lack of qualities vis-à-vis its passing elements. Therefore, we can say that the theory we are talking about is a non-ontological theory. Social systems are released from substantial implications. Thus, these systems cannot hold time fast. They cannot even repeat themselves. There is no repetition, but only, if need be, a similarity constituted by an observer of events which can be (only in the case of crisis) remembered.

In other words, such systems consult schemes or frames that offer the possibility of recognising expectations with the help of irritations. This is a very difficult idea. It may be better to illustrate this with examples:

If I open a door, I normally press down on the door handle. I do not need to think about this process. I simply do it. From time to time, I visit families who have dogs that can jump on the handle and so open the door. To avoid this unintentional opening, some families install their door handles the wrong way around, which creates problems for me in trying to open the door. I now have to remember that normally the handle is installed horizontally and not vertically. In remembering this, I recognise what I had expected. Pressing the handle down in vain, I discover the scheme of opening doors. I discover my memory because of a crisis or irritation. Remembering is a crisis-caused operation. Memory is the sum of the possibilities of being irritated. The function of memory is nothing more than forgetting. I have no reason to actualise my memory unless there is a crisis.

A funeral is a social system. There are persons in black whispering, sobbing, with serious looks on their faces. If someone were to start singing a hit song or wear Bermuda shorts at a funeral, the boundaries of this system would become immediately recognisable. They are identified at the moment of crisis. Now we see the funeral arrangement (a social expectation-pattern) that we had not seen before.

Summarising, we can see that society has to develop (a means of) time-management, too. Over a long history it had to create schemes or frames that functioned as a source of possible irritations. Perhaps the concept of culture marks this source and these irritations. Niklas Luhmann emphasises the role of time in the theory of social systems, which is a theory of communication as well. The crucial point of his argument is the difference between transient events and the duration of structures and processes. For social systems, communication is the autopoietic element or unit that produces other elements or units of the same type within a network of elements or units of the same type. The question is: how do systems, which consist of vanishing elements, create durations? They need self-defined boundaries and a memory that is not memorial, i.e. irritations that exact a remembrance of what would have been expected if there had been no perturbation.

The volatility of communications is the reason for building up structures this way - as a combination of vanishing and durations.[19] The condition of this possibility is the form of différance or belatedness.


Up to now, we have taken as given that communication can be conceived as a time-related combination of information, utterance, and understanding. However, there is an additional selection of high importance. Whatever communication is communicating, it opens the difference between the acceptance and the rejection of the meaning the communication is dealing with. Whatever communication is communicating, the next communication could be a negative or a positive reply. Whoever participates in communication, has to reckon with these two options. One does not have the choice to make no choice.

Nevertheless, nobody needs to ponder on this alternative between acceptance and rejection, but he or she could not avoid to be observed as someone who had made a decision in the frame of this communicatively opened alternative. After our considerations above, we know that - in the stream of communication-events - the events following events describe the preceding event as a specific event, and this describing contains the (so to speak) any communication accompanying information whether there had been an acceptance or a rejection.

Yet, it is very important that some communications expect a bit much for being accepted. We may say that they are (referring to acceptance) of highest improbability. Let us consider some questions as examples.

Nobody has to read, to give rolls, to kiss moist women, to believe in God, not to kill his or her neighbour, or to learn. There must be a technique that creates the conditions under which the probability will increase that these offers of meanings (to read texts, to give rolls, to kiss... etc.) come to an acceptance. This problem that we may call the problem of the fourth selection (acceptance/rejection) is the issue in the centre of Luhmann's society theory. It depends on a theory of differentiation that bases on the problem how to make the acceptance of improbable communicative offers probable.

We could not entirely discuss this theory. The central idea is that the stratified structure of society (designating the middle ages) was superseded by functional systems like economy, science, law, education, religion, art etc., that operate through the whole society. They are, we may say: tautological systems. Only economy economises, only science produces science, only law makes law, only education educates, only religion decides about religion, only art is allowed to create art etc. The most of these systems has developed a symbolic generalised medium and a binary code.


1) See Luhmann, N., Soziale Systeme, Grundriß einer allgemeinen Theorie, Frankfurt a.M. 1984.

2) See Fuchs, P., Die archaische Second-Order Society, Paralipomena zur Konstruktion der Grenze der Gesellschaft, in: Soziale Systeme, Jg.2, 1996, H.1:113-130.

3)  See for introductions Fuchs, P., Niklas Luhmann - beobachtet, Eine Einführung in die Systemtheorie. Opladen 1992; Fuchs, P. Das seltsame Problem der Weltgesellschaft, Eine Neubrandenburger Vorlesung, Opladen 1997.

4) Even in the case, you want to express your inexpressible love you usually say: I love you. Moreover, this is not said very originally.

5) See in more detail Fuchs, P., Das Unbewußte in Psychoanalyse und Systemtheorie, Die Herrschaft der Verlautbarung und die Erreichbarkeit des Bewußtseins, Frankfurt a.M. 1998

6) It is theoretically questionable that the medium has the same name as its elements.

7) The inside is for the selection of information an outside, too.

8) More exactly: It should be possible to suggest that there was behaviour meant as utterance.

9) This is highly important because there are ways to analyse this aspect.

10) Perhaps there is nothing like a diffuse feeling. It is raining, the sun is shining, or she wants that I take the dog for a walk. Nobody knows it, and I think my wife does not know it, too. However, I am only a man.

11) There are temporal paradoxes in these sentences, but they indicate the problem we are discussing.

12) In a fundamental sense, this idea is valid for all observing systems.

13) He excludes strictly that groups are system-like units. That is exactly why these units are unable to define their boundaries. See for the complex theory of society Luhmann, N., die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft, 2 Volumes, Frankfurt a.M. 1997.

14) I use the singular form because under the conditions of modernity only one society can be observed. This is the sense of saying world-society. It is an instructive tautology.

15) Perhaps we should include non-conscious systems like computers and then speak of the special case of communications with a half-conscious environment. See in more detail Fuchs, P., Kommunikation mit Computern?, Zur Korrektur einer Fragestellung, in: Sociologia Internationalis, H.1, Bd.29, 1991:1-30.

16) A new situation, not analysed: Yesterday I came back from the Black Forest by train. The opposite sitting man was using loudly his handy. I could hear his talk with his spouse without seeing her. However, the interaction excludes me as a present person though I was there.

17) Identity itself is a temporal scheme that constructs what is to treat for a while as lasting.

18) This is better to express with the German word “Umwelt” instead of “environment”.

19) We use the plural form of a singular word. We do this deliberately because there is no one duration, one substance, and one essence. I could not avoid this number agreement. Durations are always to be constructed newly. That is the modern sense of creatio continua.

Foto: wörz/rtwe

Der Autor

Prof. Dr. rer. soc. Peter Fuchs, M.A.

  • Professor für Soziologie und Behindertenarbeit an der Fachhochschule Neubrandenburg

  • Führender Vertreter des Zweiges der Systemtheorie, der mit dem 1998 verstorbenen Niklas Luhmann in Verbindung gebracht wird. Peter Fuchs bemüht sich wie wenige andere um die Weiterentwicklung der Systemtheorie, was sich auch am Umfang seiner Publikationsliste ersehen lässt.

Veröffentlichungsdatum: 15. Juli 2002

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