A systems-theoretical self is the empty set, taken as an object and then reflexively, recursively, iteratively and indefinitely reflected back into (and through) itself. Like the basis for counting: a base set of emptiness, itself impermeable and mysterious, becomes refracted through some elemental logic or ontological necessity into a duplicity defined of itself and that which it is not. That which something which is nothing is not is itself something and through this the impossible almost wishes itself into existence as it becomes its own negation.  The negation of negation thus then becomes something but the internal mirroring does not cease at this point.  Like some primordial fracture in existence, the rupture continues to grow and divide.  A fractal mitosis echoing into a vast cavernous entity that its own onward march of exponential internal recursion and self-negation has invoked.

In “Social Systems” [Stanford University Press, 1995, p.7], Niklas Luhmann demarcates this systems-theoretical definition of the system/environment ontology: “System differentiation is nothing more than the repetition within systems of the difference between system and environment.”  This is a specification framing the part/whole dichotomy and is also most certainly a topological construct.  The self (be it psychological, physiological, social or organisational) becomes intelligible as the persistent articulation and recurrence of this activity which occurs as a constant process of replication of system/environment boundaries within systems and as perceived at a global or holistic level.

That the self stems from nothing in particular has been acknowledged by the Buddhist psychologies of Zen and Ch’an for some considerable period of time.  The extension of this emptiness to being encoded in a religious formality was probably a mistake in some regards but this is at least the fundamental error that Zen attempts to dissolve so inimitably through its embrace of paradox and logical impossibility.  A fully conceptualised ontological model of self and world (and we can not have one without the other now that this duplicity and its language and logic are upon us) requires us to subtract, to remove all unnecessary conjectural bloating until we have arrived at nothing.  Not *just* a worthless nothingness, of course – but more the nothingness of a Void pregnant with potential, the generative essence of things.

Christian mystical writers may have been on the right track here when they developed “apophasis” (literally: “un-saying”) as a response to the ineffable.  Removing all objects around which discourse can be constructed until in the end the only thing we are left with is (what for them was) God is a fascinating strategy.  Of course, that the method itself still presupposes its destination through its function and activity should be of no surprise: the system differentiation occurring here is one of subtraction from itself and resulting in an ontological void which was in this sense both an inevitability and simultaneously hinted at in every iteration of the process because it *was* the process.  Descartes’ epistemological method of reducing all things that could be doubted until he was left with the unquestionable essence of the active doubting agency was a similar iterative recursion but fundamentally different in that here we find the rolling beauty of a procedural emptiness and lack of agency at the center of the spiral.

Introducing mysticism here was purely a heuristic method to shape the concept of emptiness at the heart of this narrative.  The curiosity and mystery of attempting to untangle vast enigmas is that the mystery and its complexity has to be not only that which is studied but it also necessarily defines the way it is studied.  The destination is in this way not separate from the journey and allows us a hyper-conceptual leap, just slightly beyond the possible and into enigma.  It is a danger not to be taken lightly that when investigating the great recursive logical mysteries that one does not themselves vanish in a puff of curlicued impossibility leaving behind only some mild audience irritation at the incompleteness of the whole affair and a broad Cheshire Cat smile, slowly fading to transparency and emptiness.

6 thoughts on “A Systems-Theoretical Self

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