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Love as Passion: The Codification of Intimacy

Niklas Luhmann
Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA
1998 [1982]
0804732531 (pb)
11.95/US$18.95 (pb)

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Observations on Modernity

Niklas Luhmann (translated by Whobrey William)
Cambridge University Press: Cambridge
08047 3235 3 (pb); 08047-3234-5 (hb)
10.95 US $17.00 (pb); 30.00 US$ 45.00 (hb)

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These two books by the recently deceased German sociologist Niklas Luhmann present a continuation of the trend of translating his major works into English, started with the Risk: A Sociological Theory (New York, 1993) and the monumental Social Systems (Stanford, 1995). Although Luhmann has been described a couple of years ago as 'the only true genius in the social sciences' (by Steven Fuchs), his influence in the English-language academic world has to a large extent been limited to sociology and to readers of German. With these books, it is likely that this influence will be widened to other social sciences and humanities.

Love as Passion is a reprint of the work first published in English in 1986 (original German edition is from 1982), but it did not lose any of its vigour or originality. It presents a theory of relationships based on what the author called 'interpersonal interpenetration', or '... a question of laying the basis for social relationships in which more of the individual, unique attributes of each person, or ultimately all their characteristics, become significant' (p. 13). In adopting this approach, Luhmann revises an earlier, Talcott Parsons' concept of 'interpersonal relationships' based on reciprocity, thus bringing in more elements that can explain the fluctuating and unstable components in human relationships. 'Interpenetration should also be understood to mean lovers conceding each other the right to their own world and refraining from integrating everything into a totality' (p. 176).

Love is all about communication, Luhmann claims, about formulating, learning, and participating in a specific code. This code was devised in Western European literature in the 17th and 18th centuries, and it presented a break from the earlier (medieval) tradition of 'courtly love' and fin amor. The 'rules of loving' that emerged represented a new way of restructuring the intimacy and the whole set of relationships that explain interaction between human beings. This interaction is inherently unstable, since 'all communication within intimate relationships is subject to the incommunicabilities which it itself constitutes' (p. 175). Just as love is about lack, about the unfulfilled, about the void left in place where something used to stand, so is our communication and social interaction bound to be determined with elements both inside and outside the environment where it occurs.

The Observations on Modernity is a series of five lectures (Modernity in Contemporary Society, European Rationality, Contingency as Modern Society's Defining Attribute, Describing the Future, and The Ecology of Ignorance), four of which have been presented to different audiences in 1990 and 1991. Luhmann was primarily interested in macro-sociological theories and this interest is reflected in his general arguments. The 'modern' epistemological situation, he claims, is a direct consequence of radical structural changes that have occurred within the last century and a half. There is a brief discussion of 'modern' versus 'post-modern', with the implication that if there is anything 'post', it is very difficult (if not impossible) to see (or observe). Luhmann is interested in the analysis on the semantic level - if we could see it from a semiotic one, more concerned with interpretation, - I would argue that any modern/post-modern distinction does not make much sense outside architecture, since it is the only area where these terms have been properly defined and the great majority of participants in the architectural discourse agree on their meanings. 'European Rationality' is concerned with the (Western European) capacity to see the difference between systems and their environment as a unity. In Luhmann's words:

... rationality can only be regained if we maintain the concept's previous world-reference and refuse to go along with the new deranging, by evening out such customs [of 'foreign cultures' - A B] with an autological conclusion, that is, by applying to those who practice it, thereby making it universal. (p. 42)
While emphasising the importance of 'cognitive uncertainty' for our interpretation models (in 'Contingency as Modern Society's Defining Attribute'), Luhmann gradually moves towards 'describing the future'. The key to the future is understanding of the past, 'summed up in a final risk formula. Modern society experiences its future in the form of the risk of deciding. For such a formulation, we must appropriately define the concept of risk with a precision that is seldom achieved in the far-reaching field of present-day risk research' (pp. 70-71). Finally, some questions for future research are put forward in the final chapter, 'The Ecology of Ignorance'. There is a reference to love in the process of individualisation (p. 103), but, as already noted, Luhmann is primarily interested in macro-processes. Thus, he concludes with the theory of social systems, from the theories applicable to organisations (pp. 104-106).

The masterful analyses make these books both readable and intriguing. Niklas Luhmann was able to bring together erudition with the capacity of keenly observing and extrapolating various social facts. In doing so, he has left us with a legacy that should enable us to re-interpret the whole network of social relations, taking into account paradoxes, contingency and intransparency.

Alexander Boskovik
Universidade de Brasília

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