‘You can’t beat the system.‘ What can such a hackneyed, yet oracular declaration mean? In common parlance, we might take it to mean that an individual cannot escape the grasp of the established order, the government, its attendant regulations, restrictions and demands. But such a declaration echoes a reality that humans operate by connections to things, ideas and objects within constructs and situations, which may well be deemed a system or to reside in a system. Kittler’s notorious statement in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter “media determine our situation” can easily be compounded to assert ‘“media determine our situation” within a system. Systems are everywhere, often invisible, overshadowed by their recognizable, blatant parts, residing almost pre-consciously, but drawn upon to articulate an assemblage, to represent a whole. A system is methodical, associative, and abstract; it is also inherent, common, and frequently taken as granted. A system is operational, and so it functions, as a computer operating system is the requisite for all software and programming, and hence usability. From the operating system comes computer as tool, and computer as user interface and platform for product and exchange. Such an integral feature and concept is part and parcel to media studies, where artifact, language, and theory converge to both elucidate and obscure our understanding of media and medium.

The entire OED entry for system is quite long as the word has quite a history but the first entry and a sense of its etymology are starting point into the connotations of system. A system is “an organized or connected group of objects” (OED). It comes from the Greek, and its root means “to set up” (OED). A system sets up and enables something further, an event, interaction, or process that otherwise would not have any ground or means for actualization. Think about a movie theater. There is a layout of chairs, set-up for viewing purposes in front of a screen. A projection system enables the film to be shown. The seats and space enable the audience to watch, and the theater itself sets up a moment of time and space for a produced film to be distributed. A system must be in place for an event to happen. This system can be a “complex unity”, a “whole scheme of created things”, a “social order” (OED). Related objects that demonstrate methodical connectivity and arrangement are likely to be qualified a system. Systems exist naturally, biologically, technically, linguistically, etc. A person is hard pressed not to be familiar with some type of system and its operation.

As previously noted, systems are present by means of their parts and functionality, but as a totality, systems are near invisible and quite removed. Without a center, a system looks much like a network. Alex Galloway appropriately calls networks a web–for good and for ill–which “serve as allegorical indices for many different types of complex systems” (Galloway, 283). Networks are in service to the system, indeed, they are “understood as systems of interconnectivity” (283).

Within the arena of media, systems are a larger construct for communication. Cybernetics, of which both system and network are in crucial relation, proposes that systems operate to control information and information processing. Gregory Bateson states that cybernetic language is a restraint and in a negative relation to the subject, such that information and action is a precisely limited possibility which yields unique determination. Cybernetics is concerned with information, not meaning, but as Galloway says “information is central to any living network” (286) The transfer of information, its communication, is contextual and moves within a system. An observer is essential to this movement and relay of information (a basic information model of sender and receiver) to be meaningful. Bateson summarizes the observer within a system as follows:
If we then say that a message has “meaning” or is “about” some referent, what we mean is that there is a larger universe of relevance consisting of message-plus-referent, and that redundancy or pattern or predictability is introduced into this universe by the message (Bateson, 407).
The larger universe is the system (OED I.1.b definition, the universe). Redundancy, pattern and predictability are the modes of control within a cybernetic framework. We understand information as an observer of these modes, transmitted by and through networks, within and through systems. New information, as conceived in Bateson’s model, comes from noise, which is everything not information, and from which new patterns emerge, which are then systematized. The feedback loop in this way propels new information.

N. Katherine Hayles gives a concise account of cybernetics and systems, breaking cybernetics into orders: first order cybernetics being information flow within a system; second order being the relation between observer and system; third order being the construction of observer within environments. Observer, system and environments are addressed beyond cybernetics by systems theorist Niklas Luhmann and will be discussed below. To smoothe the transition to Luhmann, it is necessary to talk about autopoiesis, a central tenet to both cybernetics and systems theory.

Autopoiesis is automatic self re-creation. An autopoietic system creates and recreates itself such that “within the living system, everything takes place in terms of the system’s own organization, which always operates so as continually to produce and reproduce itself” (Hayles, 147). Such a system is closed in the sense that no outside information can pass in from the environment, but this does not mean that an event from outside the system doesn’t trigger action within.

It is worth noting the challenge and obfuscation presented by heteropoietic systems to autopoiesis. According to Maturana and Varela, heteropoietic systems are of human creation, designed to produce a product or effect other than itself. Such a system would be designed with a purpose other than itself, thus not being autopoietic. Media and its evolution in form–out of medium– could be analyzed to have such a characteristic, creating social forms and behaviors within culture and persons, generally not viewed as media in themselves. However, systems theory (and even post-humanist theory with its focus on the human body) would have persons as a medium with their collective cultural and social infrastructure its own concatenated system.

In Luhmann’s systems theory, there exists only a fundamental dualism: system and environment. This relation is not static, far from it. As Luhmann writes, “Everything that happens belongs to a system (or many systems) and always at the same time to the environment of other systems” (“System and Environment”, 177). For Luhmann, events occur at the boundary between system and environment because system events are constantly disappearing and any continuation of events can only be produced by the difference between system and environment. This is not so much a circularity, as it is a temporal progression of self-referential systems. Events occur in both system and environment, and are recognized as an event by being between system and environment. It is association by differences. “The system totalizes itself by referring to the environment and by leaving it undetermined. The environment is simply ‘everything else’” (181). Such a concept appears simple, except that systems can become environments and environments systems. Systems are, as David Wellbery says, “autonomous operative concatenations that extend themselves by continuously redrawing the distinction between internal operations and external events” (Wellbery, 298). And importantly, an autopoietic system allows for the creation of new systems with their own system/environment distinction.

System and environment are mediated by meaning. Meaning is a medium for Luhmann which structurally couples system and environment such that they can exchange, influence and interact. Meaning allows them to relate. And meaning itself is self-referential. It constitutes events as possibilities and actualities, and is self-propelling because events appear, then disappear, appear, etc. Events cannot move between system and environment without the structural bridge of meaning. Wellbery succinctly states, “Meaning is the referential excess that carries each presentation beyond itself to other presentations” (300).

Systems are, among other things, made up of ‘events’ – of consciousness for psychic systems and of communication for social systems. Each is distinct, and cannot be known to the other, except by structural coupling. This mediated moment, the event (considered as media in the broadest sense), is actualized in the relation of medium and form. A medium consists of elements, loosely coupled, much like the conception of langue in linguistics, and form is the tight coupling of elements, such as the parole. (See entry on Language.) The medium is only realized by form, such that events are really form-events, and the elements that constitute a medium can be a form for another medium. The permeability of medium and form, system and environment is dizzying, but structure is maintained by autopoiesis. Within a system, the medium is both form and medium. The materiality and variety of art and media is precisely the “freedom to create medium/form relations” (“Medium and Form”, 117), which is the medium of art taken form in pieces of art. Art, too, then becomes a system and its attendant environment. Mitchell conceives of this building and budding concatenation as Chinese boxes, the ultimate result of which is a “dry mystical empiricism” (Mitchell, 208).

As a theory, system and environment will constitute one another ad infinitum. Media play the role of arbiter, and as such, assert their position as “determining our situation.” And in systems theory, McLuhan’s “medium is the message” also finds playful room, because it is precisely the between system and environment that can be accessed. Wellbery makes the observation that systems theory is more a method than a theory defining a field of study, and that as method, systems theory allows for a new perspective on human evolution, which includes technical evolution as well (technical determinism and technogenesis included). But system, outside of theory, retains its prominence as a structural basis of inquiry. Consider, writing systems, or filmic systems. To I.J. Gelb, writing is a system allowing for human intercommunication. For Christian Metz, a film is a singular system made of a singular text that can be analyzed by discovery of its textual system, its cinematic codes, and the sub-codes contained therein. A system is needed for work (and works) to function. Not just for media to function, but for humans to function with media and understand by means of media. The word, the concept, is so pervasive as to be obscured, but as its etymology indicates, a system gives us something to brace upon and ultimately to assess by.

Mitchell, in “Addressing Media” cites the moment in Videodrome when Max Wren asks Dr. Oblivion ‘Who’s behind it?‘ As in, who’s behind the videodrome plot? Well, the system is behind it, and the system is all of us and beyond all of us. You can’t beat the system; it permeates all environments.

George Schaefer

Works Cited

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972.

Galloway, Alexander. “Networks.” In Critical Terms for Media Studies. Eds. W.J.T. Mitchell, and Mark Hansen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 280-296.

Gelb, I.J. “Writing as a System of Signs.” In A Study of Writing. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1963.

Hayles, N. Katherine. “Cybernetics.” In Critical Terms for Media Studies. Eds. W.J.T. Mitchell, and Mark Hansen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 145-156.

Luhmann, Niklas. “Medium and Form.” In Art as a Social System. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000.

Luhmann, Niklas. “System and Environment.” In Social Systems. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995.

Matruana, Humberto R. and Varela, Francisco J. Autopoiesis and Cognition. Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1980.

Metz, Christian. “Textuality and ‘Singularity’”. In Language and Cinema. The Hague: Mouton, 1974.

Mitchell, W.J.T. What Do Pictures Want? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

“System.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. 19 Oct 2010.

Wellbery, David. “Systems.” In Critical Terms for Media Studies. Eds. W.J.T. Mitchell, and Mark Hansen. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010. 297-309.