Connecting Communications

Some things are hard to translate. The writings of Niklas Luhmann are certainly among them. His work on a grand theory of society (Theorie der Gesellschaft) offers a highly idiosyncratic language that is hard to follow and even harder to translate, indeed. No wonder poses the Luhmann Challenge to give “an example of an empirical phenomenon or puzzle that was clarified, explained, or resolved using autopoeisis or any other of Luhmann’s concepts.”

Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with Luhmann. I rely a great deal on his work in my own dissertation, which already its title reveals: Structures and Dynamics of Autopoietic Organizations. Translating his language from German to English has never been a pleasure. Just think about the concept of Anschlusskommunikation which, in blunt words, points out that communication now and here comes about previous communication and already serves future communication. Anschlusskommunikation, one neat little German word, no English translation. Connecting communication? Connectivity of communication? Nothing really fits.

It’s not just the missing translation for many of Luhmann’s concepts, it’s the very Anschlusskommunikation of his writings to other scientific communities that’s missing. The real challenge with respect to Luhmann, in may opinion, is to be inspired by his work, and then leave him behind to continue in your own direction. Connecting communications may just be the way to do that.

2 Responses to “Connecting Communications”

  • Dear Steffen,

    I faced the same problem while trying to answer the “Luhmann challenge”: His language is unique, maybe even art-ifical (and in this regard perhaps comparable with Heidegger’s). Today, especially when reading philosophical texts, I often miss his precise and unambiguous diction. Nevertheless: I literally had to *learn* Luhmann’s language when I faced up to his theory initially (it took me the first 300 pages of “Soziale Systeme”, by the way).

    My question while struggling with the translation of Luhmannian thoughts was: How many “untranslatable” books of French-, English- or Spanish-speaking authors might I’ve read so far – without knowing it? Ernst von Glasersfeld once mentioned that his constructivist epistemology was primarily due to the fact that he grew up speaking three or four languages.

    Regards, Sebastian

    Post scriptum: And what does it mean that there’s no Anschlusskommunikation at all on

  • Sebastian, you’re absolutely right. I, too, had to learn Luhmann’s language. I still have two copies of Soziale Systeme, one with many, many loose pages, annotations, and the occasional coffee stain, and another one up high on the shelf in almost mint condition. And yes, I miss his precise language, words like knives cutting theory and practice into half.

    What I meant by saying that there is little Anschlusskommunikation regarding Luhmann’s writings is that it’s one tough job to get your own work published in international journals if you rely to much on social systems theory, mainly because almost nobody reads Luhmann outside of Europe. Sure, some people can pull it off, and it also depends on the scientific community you’re targeting. But sometimes it’s just plain easier to let Luhmann be Luhmann.

    I’m in organization theory, and while Luhmann has a great deal to say about organizations, North American scholar such as Jim Taylor are sufficiently close to Luhmann (and they do cite him!) to serve as substitutes. A reference from AMR or ASQ sure beats the translation of Soziale Systeme.

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