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Form and Forms of Communication

Dirk Baecker

English translation by Stan Jones and Anja Welle

© 2008

German original version: Form und Formen der Kommunikation,

Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2005

Zeppelin University
Friedrichshafen, Germany

Dirk Baecker, Form and Forms of Communication



Preface ........................................................................................................................ 4

1. Introduction......................................................................................................... 10
1.1 Communication and Information ..................................................................... 10
1.2 Communication and Control............................................................................ 15
1.3 Communication and Action ............................................................................. 20
1.4 Communication and Perception ....................................................................... 27

2. A Model................................................................................................................ 32
2.1 Form................................................................................................................ 32
2.2 Play ................................................................................................................. 41
2.3 Space............................................................................................................... 45

3. In Society ............................................................................................................. 50
3.1 Expecting Expectations.................................................................................... 50
3.2 Number, Order, Calculus ................................................................................. 58
3.3 Forms of the Social.......................................................................................... 62
3.4 Self-description ............................................................................................... 82

4. Meaning ............................................................................................................... 88
4.1 Functions......................................................................................................... 88
4.2 Systems ........................................................................................................... 91
4.3 Persons ............................................................................................................ 97
4.4 Media I.......................................................................................................... 105
4.5 Media II......................................................................................................... 124
4.6 Networks ....................................................................................................... 135
4.7 Evolution....................................................................................................... 142

5. Design................................................................................................................. 152
5.1 Ecology ......................................................................................................... 152
5.2 Interfaces....................................................................................................... 158
5.3 Intervention ................................................................................................... 162

Index of forms..................................................................................................... 166

Bibliography ....................................................................................................... 170

Dirk Baecker, Form and Forms of Communication


“a desire to play and a desire to win.” (Warren McCulloch)

Dirk Baecker, Form and Forms of Communication


For a few years now, everybody has been talking about communication. Whether it is
wars breaking out, declarations of love going unheard, politicians suffering losses of
prestige, goods not capable of finding their place in the market, reform proposals running
into the sand or young people not really warming to their career prospects, people are
almost always inclined, as a first step, to diagnose mistakes in communication and, as a
second, to start speculating about how we could have done it better. People have learned
to acknowledge that communication can fail, yet they staunchly believe that people can
always do something to make it succeed. The how-to literature is flourishing, the
advisory business equally, and journalism programmes at the universities are
transmogrifying themselves into communication studies, which do not scrimp when
suggesting which are, and are not, the channels and the media suitable for what sort of
message to which addressees. Communication, so runs the lesson from all that, is simply
something that you do, and people can learn how it goes. Perhaps it does work a bit more
subtly, because, with communication, a mutuality, a toing and froing - and with that an
incommensurability - also come in play, and these are things that are all the more difficult
to gauge, the more people are themselves stuck in the middle of them. Yet that goes for
actions too, and, in principle, what is happening here, and when, can be here sorted out,
and in this field it can be accordingly made clear which actions are correct and which
This present book maintains a certain distance from this pragmatic treatment of
communication. I do not doubt that we can be more careful in our dealings with
communication than is frequently the case. And I doubt even less that, in retrospect, we
can often know pretty well what we did not get right, as well as, in some cases, what we
did. In essence, however, I believe that communication is something different from an
activity and that it does not, therefore, make much sense to ask about intentions, rules and
norms, to attribute causes and effects and to work on making them correspond better. In
actual fact, I have the impression that we can make more progress by setting up the
concept of communication in a certain opposition to the concept of causality and by
reserving it accordingly for describing circumstances where surprises are the rule.
This does, however, not mean that everything in the area of communication is
arbitrary. The opposite is the case. Nonetheless, whatever certainty we encounter here is
not the result of cause and effect but – and this, at least, forms the thesis of this book - of
introducing and installing degrees of freedom. Communication means dealing with more

Dirk Baecker, Form and Forms of Communication


possibilities than we can manage and coming up against limitations from surprising
directions. These limitations can only seldom be described through that scheme of good
reasons and bad intentions, from which the European tradition of enlightenment arose.
On the contrary, we run into the sort of dynamics inherent in society, which we cannot
recognise on sight, but which, however, do reveal themselves to a perceptivity, which,
like that of sociology, has learned to enquire into what determines social order.
It is interesting that these inherent dynamics are inscrutable to participants in
communication yet they do not hinder such participants from moving subtly and adeptly
within prevailing circumstances. When communicating, we can do something we do not
dictate consciously. In contrast to the more recent philosophy of neurophysiology, this
book does not, however, opt for possibly making the brain or even, in the philosophies of
other sciences, the genes responsible for something about which consciousness knows
nothing. Rather, it opts to examine the conditions of our social existence more precisely
to ascertain how a situation can persist in them, which merges order and disorder,
determines in detail what we understand as freedom and necessity and supports us,
sometimes perceptibly, sometimes imperceptibly, in every gesture and in every sentence
with which we relate to others and to ourselves. It does not always happen so obviously
as in Woody Allen’s film “Play it Again, Sam” (USA, 1972), in which the ghost of a
sovereign Humphrey Bogart, only visible to Woody Allen, gives him tips on successfully
seducing Diane Keaton. But in principle the film goes to the heart of the matter. If we
want to know how communication functions, we have to learn to observe not only
participants but, beyond them, a third element: how spaces for action are developed and
Social theory has shown itself to be fascinated by the concept of communication since
Claude E. Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication half a century ago shifted it
into the centre of a sort of science which seeks new basic concepts to describe complex
phenomena. Complex phenomena, so people had discovered, are ones which are neither
simple enough to be described causally nor homogenous enough to be described
statistically. They consist of multifarious relations between heterogenous elements, and
with that they overwhelm their observers, who cannot then avoid assuming that these
phenomena are capable of presenting and solving their problems themselves, even when
they do not know how the phenomena do it. Self-organising was the keyword in those
days, and communication was one of its most interesting cases.
That was the reason why communication was, however, a concept above all capable of
convincing people heuristically. Maybe it did not designate a new object, about which we

Dirk Baecker, Form and Forms of Communication


did not know anything before, but rather a new problematic, about which it was still not
clear to what object we could fruitfully apply it. Far-reaching hopes of a new
fundamental science calling itself informatics and cybernetics, were just as typical of
what then came along, as was the caution on the part of social theory over taking on a
basic concept, and yet still did not knowing what its aim was. Neither Michael Serres nor
Jürgen Habermas nor Niklas Luhmann wrote what we might expect as the theory of
communication, when we look at how they stated the fundamentals of the concept of
communication in their theories. Serres works instead on deconstructing the messenger,
Habermas on a theory of action, which aspired to improve circumstances, and Luhmann
stayed with a theory of systems, which advocated not letting a complex society spoil our
fun when describing it.
If, with all due respect for social theory’s reticence to date, this book does, all the
same, present a sociological theory of communications, then the reason why rests with
one more surprise. It is not the extraordinarily sceptical discussion in humanities and
social sciences over Shannon’s mathematical theory of communication, but a subsequent
mathematical idea that allows us to free Shannon’s original insight from its limitation to
the field of technical transmission of signals and to use it for formulating a general theory
of communication. This idea consists of looking at a differentiation with regard to its
form, and of understanding by a form not just both sides of the differentiation, but also
the space reaching it makes accessible.
From the perspective of the mathematical idea of the differentiation’s form, as set out
by George Spencer Brown, Shannon’s original insight does not aim at presenting a
concept of communication as transmission, but at a concept of selectivity in information.
On the part of the “sender” as much as, however divergently, on that of the “receiver”,
information can be understood if it is viewed as selecting from a range of choice among
possible messages. It is Spencer Brown’s concept of form that first allows us to
emphasise unmistakably how, if we want to talk about information and then about
communicating this information, that means reading a message in the context of reading
its range of choice as well.
Going on from reformulating Shannon’s concept of information via Spencer Brown’s
concept of form, we only need then to correct Shannon’s assumption that the range of
choice is defined – meaning it consists of a finite quantity of possible messages – in
favour of assuming an indefinite but quantifiable range of choice. We can then extend the
way the mathematical theory of communication applies to questions of technical

Dirk Baecker, Form and Forms of Communication


communication in the interests of applying it to questions of social communication. This,

no more and no less, is what the present book attempts to do.
Therefore, I am reaching back once more to George Spencer Brown’s calculation of
form, which has been fascinating me increasingly over the years since my reflections on
the form of the firm (Baecker 1993). However, reaching back to this calculation is, as
ever, not a matter of course. Although Spencer Brown’s book Laws of Form already
appeared in London in 1969, scepticism and rejection, as ever, dominate scholars’
responses. Explicit references to his calculations are rare. The organisational researcher
Philip G. Herbst had recourse to his calculations, in order to make his Alternatives to
Hierarchy (Herbst 1976) at all conceivable. The mathematician Louis H. Kauffman is
working on a theory of knots and other mathematical twists based on Spencer Brown’s
idea of differentiation. For the neurobiologist Francisco J. Varela, the calculation of form
was an important source of inspiration in his search for a model of autonomous biological
forms. Niklas Luhmann turned the idea of the binary form – where it becomes possible to
conceive how what is excluded can be included – into a cornerstone in the final version
of his theory of society (Luhmann 1997). Mathias Varga von Kibéd is working with a
circle of philosophers on a new way of describing philosophy and logic following the
thread of Spencer Brown’s concept of differentiation. Yet these are exceptions, which
are, furthermore, far removed from finding scholarly recognition for precisely that aspect
of their work which deals with the calculation of form.
It is difficult to say what justifies scepticism and rejection. Of course, the mathematics
itself frightens people off, although we are here, in my opinion, talking about a high
calibre “qualitative” mathematics, which does not make any particular demands on
calculating skills, but does nevertheless work with all the advantages of simultaneously
displaying in one equation the differentiation and the context of variables. By
comparison, presenting complicated matters in language always, of course, depends on a
sequential form, however much this is also then capable of working with all kinds of
recursive references paratactically. Behind the refusals of Spencer Brown’s calculation of
form are probably a range of reasons. I tend to look for them where I myself see the
reasons for the calculation’s fascination, namely in its claim to account for the
indeterminate-yet-determinable. Old European ways of thinking are more inclined either
to account for the indeterminate-yet-determining and to attach theological (and more
recently: media-theoretical) expectations to it, or else to base themselves exclusively on
what can be positively determined and to consider that to be the explicatory duty of
scholarship. By comparison, accounting for the indeterminate-yet-determinable brings an

Dirk Baecker, Form and Forms of Communication


observer into the game, and people either cannot imagine or do not want to imagine an
observer, because they would have to allot it a freedom to test conceptualisations and
would not know how they can regain control of it. Accounting for the indeterminate-yet-
determinable, however, suits a sociological theory, which wants to be in a position of not
having to posit order in social life but rather of being allowed to consider it a product
constantly negotiated anew, contested, and defined as deriving from this order. A social
order so acutely embodies demarcations, where what is outside the limits co-determines
what happens inside of them, that we can almost assume that the calculation of form was
invented to provide an appropriate concept of them. But thinking like that assumes being
able to think while simultaneously keeping our flanks open. And that does not seem to be
everyone’s cup of tea.
Nevertheless, something else again is playing a role, and that something resonates in
the present book rather more subliminally. If we observe how radically the great strivings
after theory in informatics and cybernetics, in systems theory and semiotics, with
predecessors a long way back into the 19th century, have differed for a good half century
now from what people knew previously under the name of “theory”, and if we note that
these strivings are contemporary with the appearance of computers, supported by the
neurophysiology of the 19th century and by the appearance of moving pictures on the
cusp of the 20th century, then the inclination to talk about a change of epochs may not be
exactly obvious, but it is not so very remote either. The modern, print-based society is
yielding to a modern, computer-based society, which needs theory no longer limited to an
ability to formulate practically motivated problem positions. How society organises time
and its own institutions is becoming at least as prominent as how it organises itself
practically, without it being possible to reduce one thing to a case of the other. The
concept of form is one situated in an abstraction possibly suited to answering the
mutually intersecting problem positions, which are occupying society from the
perspectives of ecological dangers (the practical horizon), cultural diversity (the social
horizon), and an unknown future (the time horizon). As set out here, a social theory of
communication claims to create at least a sensitivity to the way problems depend on each
other. Whether that is enough to find, as well, a different sort of access to dealing with
these problems is something we will have to see.
The following introduction begins downright abruptly by trying to distil a sociological
theory of communication out of Shannon’s mathematical one. If that is going too fast for
anyone, then, provided they read German, they are referred to the book Kommunikation
published in parallel to this one by the Reclam Verlag in Leipzig (Baecker 2005a). It

Dirk Baecker, Form and Forms of Communication


covers the history of the concept more thoroughly than this book and, from an aesthetic
perspective (Schlegel’s 1800 “How is a communication possible?”), looks into the
question of why an eloquent person is, despite all the admiration, always a little suspect

Dirk Baecker, Form and Forms of Communication

1. Introduction

1.1 Communication and Information

Since Claude E. Shannon published his mathematical theory of communication in 1948

(Shannon/Weaver 1963), what challenges the theory of communication and imposes the
most on it lies in finding out what this mathematics consists of. Finding out that Shannon
reaches back to mathematical processes customary in statistical mechanics since Josiah
Willard Gibbs does not help much, if we cannot envisage what problem position Shannon
placed at the centre of his theory. That we can see how Shannon established the bases of
a theory still standard today for describing electrical networks does not enlighten us any
more than the information that espionage technology would not be what it is today, if
Shannon had not made his theory conducive to encoding and decoding so-called secrecy
systems (Shannon 1949). Up to now, novels like Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow
(1973) and Neal Stephenson’s Cryptomicon (1999) have succeeded better than most
scholarship at discerning information and disinformation. As much as the theory of text
still today shows itself fascinated with having a new basis now enabling it to go about its
business of decoding messages incomprehensible at first sight (Bense 1969; Kittler 1990,
1993), the entire social sciences equally maintain a rather more sceptical distance (Hayles
1999: 50ff.). As before, people cannot imagine that a form of mathematics exists, which
can cope with hermeneutic problem positions.
This scepticism corresponded to Shannon’s own assessment of his theory. According
to his way of thinking, it would only be suited to dealing with the technical, not the
semantic aspects of communication (Shannon/Weaver 1963: 31). Phenomena relating to
purpose and meaning, as he assumed certainly just as much as others did, lie deeper down
than a mathematical function can imagine. Hermeneutic concerns, making a purpose
comprehensible, aim at a discussion among rational beings and containing a possibly
envisaged agreement (Gadamer 1989), about which neither mathematics nor technology
have any idea (even if economics certainly has, see Becker 1976). If we also take into
consideration that the theory of communication as signal, what Shannon’s mathematical
theory in the last analysis claims to boil down to, is primarily suited to describing the
transmission of signals between machines, then that also simply seems to rule out any
understanding of phenomena typical of human communication.
However, if we look a little more closely at the mathematics Shannon uses, we can
doubt whether thus separating the aspects of technology and semantics or those of

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transmitting signals and understanding purposes is justified. In any case, the counter
thesis did not just turn up today. It maintains that precisely observing communication as
mechanism is appropriate for also describing human and, beyond that, social phenomena
of communication (MacKay 1969). Since Shannon’s theory became current, what has
irritated people is that, with its help, we have come across phenomena previously
inaccessible to scholarship. That goes for phenomena of mutual perception, which are
distributed over several entities – each complex and, therefore, inscrutable – like, for
instance, communication in organisms, in consciousness, in social interaction and in
societies (Ruesch/Bateson 1987). It also goes, however, for phenomena, which up to now
have counted rather more as paranormal and in which, at best, magic and mysticism
could legitimately be interested. These phenomena are namely qualified uncertainties,
tunnel effects, none-localities and even so-called teleportation of states, albeit not of
objects, all of which transgress the classical conditions for objectivity, causality and
individuality, yet they have gained a certain scholarly reputation again thanks to quantum
mechanics (Bohm 1951; Mittelstaedt 2002). How can we explain the mathematical theory
of communication gaining an intuitively convincing access into problem positions not yet
accounted for, given that this theory uses a certain type of mathematics at its core? And
what sort of mathematics is that?
Shannon’s decisive insight culminates in his concept of information, which means
more exactly: in his ordering concept of information. Information is defined
mathematically as the gauge of order. An order describes how elements correlate. These
elements can be letters just as well as sentences, gestures, pictures or signs and signals of
a different kind. The concept of information defines how the conclusion can be drawn
from a piece of message (a newly appearing element) as to which order of elements we
are dealing with. If the message defines a level of the first order, and the way it is ordered
a level of the second order, then the concept of information as the gauge of order lies on a
level of the third order. That is precisely where, so it seems to me, the problems in its
reception lie.
So let us have a closer look at what is understood as an order here. In the sense of
statistical mechanics, an order is defined by the probability that we can conclude from the
presence of certain elements the presence of other elements. The gadgets, the supplies
and the cutlery in a kitchen are in a state of order, when we can conclude from the
situation of a pan, a packet of sugar or a cup, where the other pans are, the other
provisions and the other cutlery. The kitchen is in relative disorder, if I then, having

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finally found out where the forks are, have to search the whole kitchen again to find the
spoons too. This problem is anything but trivial.
The mathematical core of Shannon’s theory lies in working out and describing a
probability calculation, which enables us to deal with information, while itself being
simultaneously carried by that process, and from each single piece of message points to
the state of the world, in which we respectively find ourselves, and then from the state of
the world back again to the message we can expect. This concept’s achievement already
lies, as Norbert Wiener has underlined in his cybernetic resolution of the theory of
communications, in Gibbs’ basic notions of statistical mechanics, which consists in
breaking a complex contingency down into an endless sequence of single contingencies
and so making them workable (Wiener 1961: 46f.). Perhaps Woody Allen (1997: 15)
understood best how we should understand that: “There is no question that there is an
unseen world (a complex contingency, db). The problem is, how far is it from midtown
and how late is it open? (…) And after death is it still possible to take showers (a
sequence of single contingencies, db)?”
The thrust of this concept of information lies in a twist, which turns common sense on
its head. A piece of information is not measured by what we know as soon as we get
some message, but by what we discover in addition, as soon as we get it. The information
is not all used up in the piece of message itself and certainly not by us knowing, thanks to
the message, what we should go by. That is because a piece of information does not apply
to particular objects and circumstances, but to the ordering of these objects and
circumstances in relation to other objects and circumstances. For this reason, it has
become common parlance to say that we recognise a piece of information by its surprise
– or, respectively, its aha-effect. When someone tells me about where to find the spoons
in a kitchen, the information value of that does not lie in my finally knowing where the
spoons are to be found, but in how far this information allows me to judge what other
pieces of information I need on the way the objects in this kitchen are arranged. If it is
really untidy, it does not surprise me to find the spoons just where they are. If it is not
very untidy, I note with surprise and the concomitant aha-effect that the cutlery is clearly
to be found in this drawer and something else in the others.
This is difficult to understand not only for the reason that information is a third rank
concept here, but also because the world, in which we move with the help of such an
understanding of information, is a world of chance events, where only chance itself is not
surprising. Everything else is surprising, because it allows contexts to be deduced. That
common sense, in contrast, proceeds from connections and allows itself to be surprised

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by chance events is something that can be explained by the way we, when we form
judgements and expectations in this sense, have already worked through innumerable
pieces of information and have moved among the contexts we have already deduced from
them. In actual fact, common sense also knows that it is the context that is improbable,
otherwise it would not be so astonished by Karl Valentin’s astonishment in his piece
“The Orchestra Rehearsal” that, at the very moment he was talking to Anderl about a
cyclist, nothing less than a cyclist “by chance” went past – the twist here being that there
is scarcely anything more difficult than producing a chance event in a world already
existing as context (Spencer Brown 1957: 83-99). Mathematically, information is a
measure of the unpredictability of the incidence of events, and that measure takes on
values between 0 and 1, which become all the greater, the greater the order that can be
respectively deduced from an event.
Two concepts allow us to comprehend what more this concept of information brings
to the understanding of communication: the concept of selection and the concept of
redundancy. Selection means that a message only has any substance as information, when
it is considered as a selection from a possible range of other messages. “The significant
aspect,” of his theory, as Shannon says (Shannon/Weaver 1963: 31), is the semantic
aspect of the information, but what he considered the technical aspect, “that the actual
message is one selected from a set of possible messages.” The substance of the
information does not lie in the message itself, but in the relationship of this message to
other possible messages, which, for their part, possess a certain probability. That means,
however, that the range of possible messages available for selection must be able to be
read concurrently, if there is to be any information obtained.
And redundancy is intended to mean that, for every piece of information, we are
dealing with a relational concept, which points to the order established as fundamental or
else declared to be the range of possible messages for selection. The greater the
probability that, from one message, we can deduce other objects and states for selection
in the range, the higher is the redundancy of the respective order. The counter concept to
redundancy is that of entropy. An order displays all the more entropy, the more equal are
its events and states in their probability.
Without us having to involve ourselves with Shannon’s mathematical formulae, the
above should make clear what makes up the core of his mathematical argument. It
consists of a concept of information as order, informing us which messages (events,
states and objects) are to be expected with what certainty or uncertainty, as soon as we
are confronted with a particular message (event, state or object). Communication, as we

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may thus go on to formulate it, is a process, which, in as far as it has anything to do with
managing information, permits us to find our way in a world, whose order does not need
either assuming or bringing into question, but can be deduced within a sequence of finite
That this elucidates dealings with the semantic aspects of communication just as much
as its dealings with technical aspects, should be obvious. Shannon had disputed this
possibility because his concept of a signal theory of communication works with the
premise of a determined selective range. He is concerned with also being able to read
individual messages when they are transmitted through a disturbed channel, that is: are
distorted by “noise”. To be able to read a distorted message, he relates its probability to
the probability of all other messages, which, however, can only work statistically in a
strict sense, if the quantity of possible messages is known. A simple example is the
transmission of the message “A”. We can decipher this message as a distorted
transmission of the letter “A”, as soon as we can assume that it concerns a letter of the
Latin alphabet.
If we discount this premise of a predetermined selective range, we lose the statistical
but not the mathematical certainty of Shannon’s concept of information. Then we only
need to persevere with this mathematics in order to work on a theory of communication,
where the decisive insight consists, as before, in communication’s processing of
information and relating of particular messages to a ponderable but uncertain selective
range of possible other messages. This would then mean that communication works on
determining something indeterminate, but determinable, in order to be able to understand
something determinate.
We will demonstrate, that this generalization of the mathematical theory of
communication exceeds its technical application and comes about thanks to a further
mathematical idea, which George Spencer Brown presented in his book from1969, Laws
of Form, namely the idea of a binary form of differentiation (Spencer Brown 1972). This
idea allows us to look more closely at what it means to observe something determinate in
the context of something determinable. The differentiation Spencer Brown is talking
about means selecting in the sense of Shannon’s mathematical point of departure. And
the form this differentiation indicates as a binary form defines the redundancy, which all
communication is working to increase, as Gregory Bateson’s apt words have it (Bateson
1972: 406f.). We shall see that working with this figure of the indeterminate but
determinable is sufficient for dealing with all conceivable problematics in addressing
sense and meaning, as long as we only take particular care to preface our dealings by

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making differentiations in the context of the binary form of these differentiations. And in
the conversations that Gadamer has described, there is nothing different going on either.
An advantage of shifting from Shannon’s mathematics of probability theory to
Spencer Brown’s calculation of form consists besides in being able, in contrast to the
categorical aspect of every selection, which determines its statistical applicability, to
emphasise its operative aspect, to which it owes its genesis. Selections do not order the
world’s events, objects and states, but create this world in the first place. We, therefore,
need a possibility which enables us to ask in response who or what is undertaking the
selection, in what states (selection of particular messages) they result and to what space
of redundant possibilities (range of selection of possible messages) they can be related, in
order to be processed. Every selection is, therefore, understood as a differentiation, which
has to be completed on the spot and can be scrutinized for its binary form.
On this basis we can then set down Shannon’s concept of communication as follows:

Later (section 2.1), we will introduce more extensively the characteristics of noting down
the calculation of form. Let it here suffice to point to what defines a form, the context of
operation (a selection taking place) and differentiation (interpreting of the selection in the
context of positing a space of possibilities as a redundancy). And whoever is by now
already missing variety, which is known as the counter concept to the notion of
redundancy and sought in the tone of the well-known question “And how do new things
get into the world?”, let them consider the fact that every selection can be understood as a
variation, if enough good reason exists to interpret it in the context of redundancy other
than the usual one.

1.2 Communication and Control

The cybernetic concept of communication supplements the mathematical concept of

communication with one further basic notion, namely the notion of recursivity.
Communication, as the notion has it, only comes about, when it can fall back on itself. It
can, therefore, only begin, as we can repeatedly confirm in train compartments, at parties

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or in seminars, when it has gained sufficient ground to assume that it has already begun.
The reason for this construction in turn lies in the insight from statistical mathematics, to
the effect that we can only deal with the world’s complex contingency by dividing it up
into an endless sequence of individual contingencies. For, as Norbert Wiener has declared
(Wiener 1961: 10), “if only one contingency is to be transmitted, then it may be sent most
efficiently and with the least trouble by sending no message at all.”
Norbert Wiener published his cybernetics in the same year as Claude E. Shannon’s
signal-theory of communication. We know that for both of them John von Neumann’s
games theory and his cybernetic theory played a big role. The games theory was
developed together with Oskar Morgenstern as a further attempt to get a grip on social
interdependency, and the cybernetic theory as a stringent attempt to describe mechanisms
of reproduction, initially of artificial and then also of organic, psychic and social systems
(machines, organism, brains, consciousness, society) (see historical accounts in Heims
1982, 1991; Edwards 1996). That needs stressing, because, between the three
mathematicians Shannon, Wiener, and von Neumann, intuitions played a role other than
those later to underpin the success of informatics, cybernetics and artificial intelligence.
Among other things, Wiener and von Neumann knew all about the situation of central
problems of their mathematical investigation of artificial and other systems being as yet
unresolved, as in the question as to what type of statistical data could be appropriate for
investigating the processing of information in an organism, a brain, in consciousness and
in society, and in addition the question as to how, if non-linear oscillators play a crucial
role in the reproduction of a system, we can couple several of these oscillators together,
and not least the question as to what sort of basis makes it possible for systems to predict
their own operation, if this prediction has to be both continual and non-linear (McCulloch
2004: 359).
I do not want to claim that extending the mathematical theory of communication using
that of form can answer all these questions. I do not even want to claim that the theory of
form is motivated by these unsolved problems. However, what I do want to claim is that
we must acquire a distance from the signal theory of information and from the
transmission model of communication, in order to be able to see once again that these
unsolved problems do exist and that, for the further development of the theory of
communication, they continue to represent important intuitions derived from
mathematical problematics. In the years since then, a large part of the development of the
general and also of the sociological systems theory in particular can only be understood,
in my opinion, if we bear in mind that informatics and cybernetics are incomplete

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sciences and not in some way a methodological toolkit, about which we know what it can
and cannot do (Pias 2003; von Foerster 1995; Baecker 2007).
What is Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics all about? It is about control, namely about the
question how, within an endless sequence of individual contingencies, it is possible that
every individual event arises as a reaching back to previous events and forward to future
ones. Here, control is, as emphasised by W. Ross Ashby (1958: 97f., 1956), to be
understood as a concurrent remembering, which does without an understanding of this
world when faced with its complex contingency and orients itself instead according to
expectations and continually corrects them in view of the actual events. Along with
Wiener, we can talk about how communication is only possible, when the allocation of
probability of possible events, states and objects is constantly constructed and corrected
through watching events, states and objects actually emerging (Wiener 1961: 60ff. and
95ff.). The concept of feedback has been introduced in order to bring this process of
correcting expectations into focus through watching it. We differentiate positive
feedback, which amplifies deviation, from negative feedback, which reduces it
(Maruyama 1963).
The central issue is, however, is the recursivity in linking every individual
contingency, as a contingency, with other, selected contingencies in the context of
constructing allocations of probability or, respectively, redundancies. That is because this
recursivity - we are coming back once again to a mathematical intuition – should be
deemed responsible for the fact that, in the midst of contingencies adopted, processed and
reproduced by every individual communication, there do nevertheless and in
consequence emerge stable values, according to which we orient ourselves and which we
can, in the last analysis, consider to be the world we have to deal with. That is the idea
lying at the heart of Heinz von Foerster’s concept of cybernetics in general and of his
epistemology of communication in particular (von Foerster 2003: 261ff., 247ff., and
1980). In this constant reaching forward and backward what perseveres is what can only
persevere for that reason. Edmund Husserl had already wondered at that in the context of
his theory of consciousness just as much as Jean François Lyotard in the context of his
theory of language (Husserl 2001; Lyotard 1988), to say nothing of Jacques Lacan, who
could conceive of a calculus of “places as empty” (Lacan 1991: 299f.) which depicts how
language and consciousness (and the unconscious as “language”) create their own reality,
where none exists in the first instance, yet it does arise from linking one contingency with

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We can establish two things as regards this cybernetic concern with the phenomenon
of communication. One of them, as emphasised by Heinz von Foerster in particular, is the
fact that a theory of communications is only to be taken seriously against the background
of these mathematical ideas. That is: when it manages not to start out with communicable
things, with what, therefore, matters above all then (signs, symbols, words, gestures,
messages, communications of all sorts), but with the recursive process from which these
communicable things, as so-called inherent values of a recursive function, derive in the
first place. We do not come upon something, which then motivates communication. By
contrast, we are already communicating and in and because of that find reasons allowing
us to go on with it or to cease communicating. Initially, it is a question of describing how
communication functions and then finding out why it contrives agreement and
disagreement, consensus and dissent, which then encourage or discourage
communication. (Where it is not necessarily the case, that a consensus is encouraging and
dissent discouraging. And, of course, the opposite does not absolutely have to apply too.)
The second thing is - and with it we come back to Shannon and Wiener as well as to
Spencer Brown – that the concept of communication we are working on here can only be
envisaged as founded on basal oscillations, which have, as soon as we envisage
communication as system, to be additionally thought of as non-linear oscillations. What
is meant by that is that every individual piece of information, which is generated and
reproduced by communication, is information born of the oscillation, the toing and froing
of an alternation between observing a single message and observing its range of possible
messages for selection. Spencer Brown’s concept of form allows us to say that one
observation (the message) is, for its part, perhaps not in a contingent but in a necessary
relationship to other observations (of the range of selection), if it is to be a matter of
interpreting the message as information. For that reason, and following Spencer Brown,
we can offer the formula, that the selection of a message and the redundancy of the range
of selection are the two variables of an equation in communication, where the two
constants are the differentiation between message and range of selection and the
differentiation and reintroduction of the range of selection.
The oscillation is non-linear, because, in accord with the basic theorem of system
theory, it has to be in a position to exchange the opposing poles in the oscillation, in order
to be able to switch from reproduction to disruption and also to be able to gain elements
of reproduction from the disruption. That is because the basic theorem of system theory
S ≠ S, if S = S (S,U).

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The system, S, is not identical with itself, if it is the function, S, of itself and of its
environment, U (Baecker 2002: 83ff., 2001a). We will come back to the system function
subsequently, in section 4.2.
Of course, a third point should be attended to, which we have brought upon ourselves
by talking about observations. Putting communication into the context of control means
envisaging them fundamentally from the perspective of a monitoring observer, in the
sense already described, who can be a participant in the communication but also an
external observer. The more socially matters proceed – to formulate it here, somewhat
confusingly, as gradual, in that matters can only proceed either socially or non-socially –
the more participants in communication are simultaneously observers of communication
as well. In social contexts - just what the concept of communication does emphasise - we
can envisage these very contexts only on the condition that all participants are monitoring
what they are dealing with and what they are involving themselves in.
Heinz von Foerster, therefore, frames the recursive function of communication in a
formal statement, which he proffers along with, as already said, its provision, which
consists in replacing communicable things with the recursivity of communication. The
pertinent background is a concept of communication understood as “the interpretation of
the interaction of two organisms Ω1 and Ω2 by an observer” (von Foerster 2003: 256; see
also Watzlawick/Beavin/Jackson 1967: 39f., asking for a “calculus” of communication).
How have we to envisage this observer and their role? Certainly, this observer is in the
first place to be understood as a mathematician, an information scientist, a cyberneticist, a
theoretician of automata and a games theoretician and then, however, a biologist, a
sociologist or an anthropologist as well, yet also, last but not least, everyone and
everything, who or which are in a position to take part in communication. That is actually
cybernetic’s key discovery, which then calls itself a cybernetics of the second order,
when it emphasises this discovery: investigating communication and control in the sense
already specified leads not only to describing ourselves as observers, who are overtaxed
by the complexity of what we are trying to observe, but also to allotting its own capacity
for observation to the object, assuming that it is complex and capable of reproduction.
The second-order cybernetics developed by Heinz von Foerster is a cybernetics of
systems no longer just observed but themselves observing (von Foerster 2003). There is,
therefore, little sense in only thinking of humans under the heading “observer”, because
we can surely envisage a fleeting interaction, a family, an organisation, a nation, a culture
or a society as an observer, to say nothing of our consciousness, our brains and our
organisms, which observe themselves and us, nothing of ghosts, angels and mice, which

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observe us, without us noticing it, and nothing of machines, particularly computers and
robots, which we increasingly learn to include as possible observers in our social
reckonings (Latour 2004).
Observing is a highly distributed process, which, however, can always be allotted to
something or someone, no matter how much we can also go astray in our allotment.
Observing, as another notion from Heinz von Foerster can be understood, actually only
presumes that two demons from the house of Maxwell never flag in their enigmatic work
of increasing redundancy: a demon inherent to systems, which constantly sees to it that
the states our communication takes on resemble the circumstances we already know, and
an external demon, who sees to it that this world is as it is and remains as we construct it
in the circumstances of our communication (von Foerster 2003: 1ff.; see Dotzler 1996;
Pask 1996). We need a theory of communication, proceeding from the two concepts of
information and control, above all because do not really want to be able to trust the work
of these two demons any more, or at least to lend them a hand. So we start observing our
own observations. We want to monitor what our surveillance manoeuvres have landed us
with so far. At the centre of our communications theory there stands, therefore, a concept
of communication, which understands communication as constructed by an observer,
who is trying to get a line on itself and is not unconditionally identical with us.

1.3 Communication and Action

A sociological theory of communications does not differentiate itself from a

mathematical theory of communications by doing without mathematical formulae, but by
possessing its own way of posing problems, which differs from the mathematical one
depending on circumstances. How the mathematical theory of communication poses
problems consists in ascertaining of technical signal transmission under noisy channel
conditions; how the sociological theory of communications poses problems consists in
questioning the way communications are possible between independent living beings.
The mathematical theory of communications works on the possibility of calculating
causality under conditions of incontrovertibly calculable interruptions of this causality;
the sociological theory of communications works on the description of recursive orders of
dependence between independent living beings, which are equipped with their own
consciousness, their own memory and divergent observing perspectives. Both theories
converge at a point located in the question of dealing with uncertainty, as developed into
the question of how to deal recursively with an infinite sequence of single contingencies.

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In what follows, what is developed as the sociological theory of communication stays

with this sociological way of posing problems, yet it deviates from other sociological
theories of communication in as far as it follows this way of posing problems down the
path of a sociological interpretation of the mathematical theory of communications. In
this way, we take advantage of a quality in mathematical procedure, which rests with
mathematics developing formulae based on its way of posing problems, which
subsequently can be variously interpreted. And so we retain the central point about
dealing with uncertainty (see also Leydesdorff 2001: 38ff., 1991, 2000; Rasch 1992), we
are, however, speculating that this uncertainty in social circumstances is not processed on
the level of statistical causalities, but on the level of setting, testing and correcting the
conditions for communication to be carried further. We speak, therefore, of the necessity
of constructing communication by communication and do not assume for it much more
than the possibility of translating weak conditions of communication into strong
restrictions, as one would say in quantum theory (Mittelstaedt 2000). And here we align
ourselves with that tradition of sociological theories of communication, which does not
anchor the possibility of communication either in the intentions of the individuals
involved or in regulatory structures otherwise established, but which makes the
recursivity of communication itself exclusively responsible for it and understands both
intentions and rules as structures of this recursivity (Schützeichel 2004: 353f.).
Our interpretation of the mathematical theory of communication works with two basic
notions. The first notion consists in our allotting the fact of selecting a message within a
recursive process of communication to an activity, which is, on its part, constructed by
communication. And the second basic notion consists in our equipping the redundancy of
communication with an index of uncertainty, which cannot be clearly resolved and points
selectively to perceptions of the participating systems of consciousness and to
communication itself. In the following section we deal with this second basic notion.
Sociology has been dealing with the question of what we understand as an activity
ever since it saw itself motivated perforce to differentiate itself from biologists’ and
psychologists’ research into behaviour. We recognise an activity through a “subjective
meaning” connected with it, as Max Weber (1978: 4) defined it. This meaning is,
however, understood by the agent differently from the observer, as Alfred Schütz adds
(1967: 7f.), so that sociology is concerned with a concept of difference, which forces us
to think about social order as a unity of the divergency within variously professed
meanings. Talcott Parsons develops his theory of activity from this notion, as he
understands each individual activity as a system, where various functions (conformity,

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achieving goals, integration and maintaining latent patterns) have to be simultaneously

fulfilled under the condition of solving environmental problems and this fulfilment of
functions has to maintain itself in time, that is: in the form preserving the system (see, for
“action frame of reference”, Parsons 1949: 731ff., 1951; Parsons and Shils 1967). Niklas
Luhmann has pointed out that it would have to be interesting to observe this systems
theory of action from the perspective of Spencer Brown’s calculation of form, because
the two variables preservation in time and of the system/environment difference in
Parson’s theory display links to Spencer Brown’s concepts of the repetition and
oscillation of a differentiation (Luhmann 1980a: 14).
Beyond this, it has, however, proved difficult to differentiate the concept of action
from the concept of communication sharply enough. Actions display a “communicative
nature”, as Edward Sapir formulates it (Sapir 1980), as they make a connection between
individuals, which values them differentiating between each other. Actions are selected in
such a way that they can maintain themselves communicatively in describing and
confirming the role of the respective interlocutor, as George Herbert Mead writes to
validate his theorem of communication “taking the role of the other” (Mead 1962: 73f.),
in order to engage with the difficulty of not being able to decide whether this
communication orientates itself according to the self of individuals or according to the
self of the social meaning they lay claim to. He has to posit an ideal human society, in
which this difficulty no longer carries any weight, because the two forms of the self – and
this is what the ideal consists of – do not really diverge (Mead 1962: 327).
We are taking a somewhat different option in what follows. We are picking up Niklas
Luhmann’s notion, that actions are assignment points for attributions, which are
undertaken by communication (Luhmann 1995a: chap. 4), and supplement this notion
with Jürgen Habermas’s reflection that claims to recognition can attach themselves to this
assignment of actions, and these claims help individuals to observe not only each other
(including themselves) but also their communication (Habermas 1984). It is true that
Luhmann does much rather emphasise how unlikely communication is, and Habermas
tends to presume the capacity for reason (Luhmann 1981a, 2002a; Habermas 2003), but
the understanding of both converges where they imagine the possibility of an action or
else of the possibility at least of observing an action from the viewpoint they choose.
That is the decisive point. Actions puncture and punctuate communication in such a
way that communication gains indicators for where it stands and how it can progress
(Watzlawick/Beavin/Jackson 1967: 54ff.; Wilden 1972: 111ff.). They are the product of
attributing arbitrariness in the philosophical sense, that is, in the eminent sense of

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improbability, of artificiality and of the extraordinariness of a free will in the context of a

communication, which always produces more entanglement than any freedom can
produce benefit. But, it is for precisely that reason that we need actions, arbitrariness and
even the idea of freedom. They are late products of communication observing itself,
creating leeway and attributions, on condition of them being available for choice, where
the uncertainty of communication cannot be processed in any other way.
The self-understanding of a communication orientates itself according to actions in the
double sense of setting and varying its own conditions for continuing. That is because
each action has happened, precisely because it is defined after the event, when observed
from the perspective of communication, and so it offers clues towards dissolving the
definition through a new and a different action. And the self-understanding of the
participating individuals orientates itself according to actions, because it can interpret
each action as its own action, but does this with reference to other people’s actions. Both
together provide communication with identities of that type, which is to be traced back to
differences, namely the divergence of communicative perspectives and other people’s
share of setting our own self.
It is, therefore, decisive that actions are selections, which, as themselves, point to the
space of redundancy, in which they are undertaken. From that a characteristic of social
action results, which is common in every social practice, but which causes sociology
considerable difficulties, if it does not follow the outlined tradition of the concept of
action, from Weber via Schütz and Parsons up to Luhmann and Habermas, and engage in
proposing the communicative proportion in the constitution and construction of action.
This characteristic is the almost compulsory ambivalence of social action. Each action is
the product of an assignment, an attribution, which has to carry with it the possibility of
other assignments to the networking of action in the space of communicative possibilities
and always has at least the possibility of attributing the selection of an action either to a
person or to the situation, in which this person exists (Heider 1944, 1958). In the
conceptual system formulated by Parsons, it can turn out at any time, that environmental
aspects different from the ones stipulated have to be worked through and a future
different from the one expected has to be proposed. For that reason, precisely the
attribution to a point of intended meaning capable of just that, and destined for retention,
has also to be, in the instant of the attribution, up to indicating a certain element of
quantum-mechanical uncertainty, which is only resolved when the observers converge in
their attribution of the intended meaning of the action. However, selectivity and with it

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the possibility of other attributions – that is why we have memory – both have to be able
to be reinvested again in the process of attribution at any time.
Harvey Sacks’s analysis of conversation has emphasised this point in an inimitable
manner (Sacks 1992). As Sacks asks, on the basis of a mass of telling examples, how
people can communicate in such a way, that “accounts”, attributions of an ostensible
meaning, are consistently suggested and invited without, as long as the conversation
remains open, the possibility of also correcting again each depiction of a possible
intention and thus giving away the concomitantly claimed personal identity? Eric M.
Leifer has advanced the thesis that we can well understand what is happening here, if we
look at the behaviour of skilled chess players (Leifer 1991: 66). That is because we do
not maybe recognise chess masters by them trying to calculate in advance as many of
their opponents’ moves as possible, but, quite the contrary, by them trying to sustain a
situation which is balanced and hence uncertain in its development, so that a chance
remains to recognise and correct initial mistakes. It, therefore, concerns moves or,
respectively, actions, which use their potential for being defined as an interpretation of
the situation and its development not to reduce the uncertainty perhaps, but to cultivate it,
if not to increase it as necessary.
With reference to Leifer’s later works, we can talk about two “Leifer skills”, which
describe how, on condition that communicative attributions are kept open, people can act
in such a way that attributions can be proposed but do not have to be determined. These
capacities consist in maintaining “target ambiguity” and “content ambiguity”
(Leifer/Rajah 2000; Leifer 2002, referring, however, not to Sacks but to Thomas 1993).
“Target ambiguity” consists in keeping open who is actually intended, and “content
ambiguity” in keeping open what the question is. And both fulfil the purpose of setting
out a social situation sufficiently precisely, in order to be able to decide which decisions
about content are attractive in their self-definition and promising as regards contacting an
It should nonetheless be admitted, that we are here engaging in the description of a
communicative activity, which has been, at least since Plato’s Sophist (Plato 1993), liable
to the suspicion of inauthentic and dishonest speech, aiming only at effects or,
respectively, at correcting them. A more precise reading of the conversation between
Theaitetos and a “stranger” shows, however, that sophistic speech is made responsible
not only for the dubious art of persuasion, but also for the eminently philosophical art of
establishing a context under the conditions governing the institution of useful
differentiations. Sophistry is, then, not the marginal case for describing communication

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under the conditions of its capacity for attribution to actions, but the general case, by
which the case of authentic and indubitably honest speech can be differentiated as a
special one, only coming about under strong and hence improbable restrictions.
What is more, the accusation of sophism only applies to communication because
people observe that they can vary the conditions giving rise to the selecting of actions.
What then calls itself rhetoric, that aims at underlining the insufficient grounds for taking
action, so that the agent either refrains from action or, certainly encouraged by the
speaker, sets up the sufficient grounds themselves (Blumenberg 1981: 124f.). The young
man’s art of loving, the merchant’s art of selling or the teacher’s art of words are
esteemed equally by Plato as arts, which seduce the lover, the buyer and the learner into
committing themselves. In opposition to that are then ranged attempts by ontology to
determine what really exists, and by orthodoxy, duly regarding proper grounds, not to let
the dilemma of insufficient grounds arise in the first place. It is always the case that
orthodoxy views insufficient grounds as problematical, as they allow the agent to
discover they can set up the sufficient grounds themselves – or indeed have to.
Since then the art of communication has revolved around the attempt to make
committing to an action seem every time like the person doing the action committing
their own self to it. And vice-versa, the art of action has revolved around the attempt to
anticipate this allotting meaning to the self, in order to restrict what is still subsequently
possible as communication (Kierkegaard 1997; Baudrillard 1990; Schelling 1960).
However, it is always a question of a balancing act between grounds sufficient and
insufficient, strong and weak, which sometimes suggest actions, other times delay them
and thereby ensure that restriction favouring certain selections remains always visible as
restrictions, with, on their outside edges, other conceivable possibilities.
People have repeatedly tried to tame this suspicion vis-à-vis a sophistic and rhetorical
attempt on communication in such a way, that they fundamentally differentiated suspect
from actually not suspect motives for communication, for example, the art of love and the
art of selling as suspect from the art of teachers, priests and medics as not suspect. In this
sense, Habermas still differentiates between suspect “systems” and a “life world” which
is not suspect (Habermas 1984). But this attempt could not be maintained, or only in the
institutional form of the “to be silent instructions” (Schweigebefehle), as Carl Schmitt
described them applying to modern European history, as the lawyers’ to be silent order
on theologians after the denominational civil wars of the 16th and 17th centuries and the
engineers’ to be silent order on the lawyers in the course of industrialisation’s success in
the 19th century (Schmitt 1950: 69ff.). Institutions and the discourses belonging to them

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can neutralise suspicion, because they make palpable what reactivating it would cost.
Communication on its own cannot do that, however. The very strongest reason, as soon
as communication relies on it and repeats it in further discussion and recounting, becomes
for it “mere talk” in Martin Heidegger’s sense, lacking in any “grounding” or any
discrimination as well, which distinguishes the good reason, the one remaining in touch
with the insufficient, from the strong reason (Heidegger 1967: §35; see also Calvino
1988: 31ff., on “vagueness”; Stygermeer 2005 on “means”).
As regards the difference between communication and action, it should also be at least
recalled that dramatizing this difference right up to differentiation, respectively taking
one or the other sociological theory as point of departure, criminally obscures how a third
factor plays a role both for communication and for action, namely experience (Luhmann
1995a: 84f., 113f.). It goes both for action and for communication that they cannot be
organised without the possibility of attributing their respective selection to an agent
experiencing a situation. What would an action be, precisely as the artefact of an
attribution through communication, which is only described as the product of an aim, an
intention, an impulse and not also as the result and the expression of experiencing a
situation by the person who acts? What would communication be, were its selecting a
message only to be understood as informing and not as also indicating the area of
redundancy canvassed along with this message? They would be nothing more than
chance events, where no other restriction on their origin would come into question than
an agent’s will and the intention. Not even the sociological theory of agency, however,
goes that far, although it does occasionally read just like that. Even the concept of
“situation”, which plays a large role in this theory, cannot correct this impression, as it
serves to define restrictions on the person acting (Esser 1991: 23ff.), but not for
describing, with their own degrees of freedom, areas for the play of perception on a
situation as experienced as a person takes action (Parsons/Shils 1951: 76ff. on “pattern
The decisive point is, however, that we cannot sociologically explain either an action
or a communication, if we do not take into account that, with every selection, what must
also be encouraging and discouraging respectively is the sort of experiencing of social
situations, be it required of an individual or be it conceded to them. Experience
encompasses the possibility of happiness as much as that of suffering. And both are, and
precisely in their unprecedented individuality, also moderated socially, because with
happiness and with suffering the question is also always how communication can go on
subsequently. For that reason, a sociological theory of communications would be

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incomplete, where it only recognizes being “active”, but not “passive” experience, as
addresses for attributing communication and in addition is not likely to know that action
can be wrapped up in a situation just as passively as experience always has to be
undertaken actively as well.

1.4 Communication and Perception

Possibly the greatest difficulty for the concept of communication, with which the
sociological theory of communication presented here is working, consists in
differentiating communication from perception. Since 18th century aesthetics and 19th
century neuropsychology discovered that perception as the operation of an individual
consciousness is not only individually constituted, but is, in addition, not accessible
communicatively, the question, as already formulated by John Locke earlier and then
spotlighted by Friedrich Schlegel, of how a message is possible at all, if the ideas it refers
to are locked in people’s hearts and heads (Locke 1959, vol. 2: 8; Schlegel 1967). That is
why humans invented language, but then had to realise that this is something that delivers
external signs for internal states, without being able to ascertain, that the signs and the
states have anything else beyond a loose connection. Whoever wants to know why
language nevertheless functions has to stay with the articulation of words and sentences
among themselves, according to Wilhelm von Humboldt (1999), or respectively with the
differences that make differences, according to Friedrich de Saussure (1972). He then
finds out that language does function not in despite of its loose connection with the things
of the world, but because it establishes a difference vis-à-vis the things of the world
(Wittgenstein 1953; Derrida 1990b; see Krämer 2001). For this reason, Friedrich
Schlegel relies, in doubt, on incomprehensibility, in order to gain pointers as to a merely
contingent, but hence dependable processing of the difference between communication
and perception, from the question of how communicating ideas might be possible
(Schlegel 1967, “On Incomprehensibility”). And confronting the problem of judgements
of taste as only individually specified, Immanuel Kant goes on from Alexander Gottlieb
Baumgarten and invents the category of the beautiful, in order to be able to provide the
individual with indexes as to which of their judgements of taste, and in what form, can
claim “communality” (“sensus communis”) and which cannot (Kant 2000: B17ff.;
Baumgarten 1983; see Graubner 1977).
Neurophysiology has supplemented the difference between communication and
consciousness with the difference between brain and consciousness since Johannes

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Müller formulated the principle of undifferentiated coding in the mid 19th century: the
nerve cells of our brain do not code (that is: differentiate) the physical nature of what is
stimulating them, but only how much they are stimulated. The brain does the rest itself. It
constructs the noises, the colours, the touch sensations, the smells, the pleasure and the
pain, which make an outside world perceptible for us, whilst we do not perceive the
process of perception itself, that means the construction of perception in progress (von
Foerster 2003: 211ff.).
Friedrich Nietzsche must have known about this neurophysiology, when he describes
the formulation of a thought as follows (Nietzsche 2006): “A nerve stimulus, first
transposed into an image – first metaphor. The image, in turn, imitated by a sound –
second metaphor. And each time there is a complete overleaping of one sphere, right into
the middle of an entirely new and different one.” He also drew the only appropriate
conclusion, namely that no causal, but only an “aesthetic attitude” is possible between the
various spheres: “For between two absolutely different spheres, as between subject and
object, there is no causality, no correctness, and no expression; there is, at most, an
aesthetic relation: I mean, a suggestive transference, a stammering translation into a
completely foreign tongue – for which I there is required, in any case, a freely inventive
intermediate sphere and mediating force.”
Since then, every communication has been equipped with an index of uncertainty. No
sentence, no gesture, no sign, no notification and no message can be unequivocally
attributed either to a perception or to a communicative cause. A role is always played by
both the report about something at hand, as Jürgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson
formulate this (Ruesch/Bateson 1987: 179f.), and the command, namely the imperative to
listen, to experience accordingly and to act, to cooperate and above all: to take the
speaker seriously. And we always have to be afraid all that only plays a role, because
something else is to be reinforced, that perceptions are committed to make
communication credible or at least to make it more difficult to object to it and that we
rely on communication not least for the reason, that we do not trust our own perceptions.
In actual fact, acknowledging this uncertainty is the crucial precondition for processing it
and, in the alternation between criticism of perception and criticism of communication,
transforming it into an admittedly transient but nonetheless useful certainty (Descartes
1989, starting from “doubt” to get to a “method”).
However, the concept of communication has since been made to serve in denoting a
“crisis” in people’s relationship to the world, which can only be counteracted if
communication is understood, as far as possible, as an interaction between people who

Dirk Baecker, Form and Forms of Communication

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are there, and the meaning it conveys is bound as far as possible to the presence of a
contact (Peters 1999: 245). But that is ideology, at best philosophy. In actual fact, the
concept of communication exists by taking the aesthetic and neurophysiological
challenge seriously and giving itself a foundation in cognitive theory (Baecker 2005a).
Niklas Luhmann furnished this demand with the point that communication cannot
perceive itself and is only possible in the environment where systems of consciousness
are capable of perception (Luhmann 2002, 1990a: chap. 1). This comprehends that
communication can, for its part, be perceived by the tones, gestures, pictures, texts it
produces. Art does profit by this, but it does not change anything about the
communicating of this perception of communication being, then again, only possible as
communication, namely by excluding perception itself.
This difference between perceptible communication and incommunicable perception
makes the concept of communication, as we are using it here, intuitively so ponderous.
People can only get accustomed, in the truest sense of the word, to this aspect of a
sociological theory of communication by accepting it on trial and experimenting with it,
that means making observations with it as basis and so gradually gaining a feeling for
where it makes sense and where it possibly does not.
For that we have had good reasons, not only just theoretically but also empirically,
since all attempts to anchor human communication anthropologically in the first place,
then psychologically and recently even biologically and neurophysiologically in
apparently more graspable areas of reality and to derive it from them, have turned out
inadequate. These attempts mostly do not have an eye for the diversity of social forms
maybe derivable and they overlook as well how much the comprehensibility of scientific
descriptions owes, on its part, to discursive and hence communicative effects, which,
through bias towards the “objectivity” of entities, are not accounted for in what people
do. Yet, whilst some strive for a reduction of communicative behaviour to
anthropological constants, psychological motifs, biological restriction or
neurophysiological mechanisms (Roth 2003: 553ff.; more cautious: Singer 2002), others
discover that totem and taboos, pictures of sinners and saints, romantic novels, movies,
television pictures have long since burrowed into our conscious and unconscious minds
so deeply, that any psychology and neurophysiology do anyway run up against the
communication they actually wanted to circumvent, if not directly in themselves, then
nevertheless in their object (Freud 1996; Benjamin 1969: 217ff.; Merleau-Ponty 1964;
Girard 1965; Virilio 1991; Luhmann 1997: 306ff., 2000a).

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In actual fact, the only thing becoming critical here, if we once disregard the
authoritative declarations of individual sciences, is the concept of reality. What is still
real, if everything that has an effect points to biological and neurophysiological,
psychological and sociological facts in equal measure? This question’s urgency has
impelled constructivism’s cognitive theory to determine on referring back every single
reality to an observer, who has to answer for “inventing” it (Watzlawick 1977). With this,
we go back beyond the idealistic problem of knowledge, which has determined from
rationality’s responsibility for itself not on “invention” but on “critique.” That is because
the question actually is how the observer, who also does not know which constructions of
their reality they can now attribute to consciousness or to communication, works out an
understanding of reality, for which they believe they have good reason not simply to
consider it as their invention (Wildavsky 1994; Luhmann 2002b; Latour 2003).
Reality is now no longer something we can assume is a world experienced through
evidence, being as it is, whilst we haul ourselves neurophysiologically, psychically and
communicatively hand over hand from contingency to contingency, but it is only
something that, now distinctly, now somewhat indistinctly, still reveals itself through
opposition against our thinking and our actions within this thinking and these actions as a
restriction on this thinking and these actions. That I do not feel what I think, or do not
mean what I say, should, as a pointer to the reality in which I move, cause me to reflect.
That does not make me, in a constructivist manner, the inventor of my reality and
certainly not its discoverer in a classical sense. But it makes me the critic of myself, at
least where I can tolerate this. And I have no other points of access.
In addition, we can also regard the attempt to employ the body where consciousness is
no longer enough to guarantee reality, as a failure. The body also only serves to signal an
opposition, for instance, when I use my consciousness, to look down at myself and
discover where I presumably do actually begin and where I actually come to an end
(Merleau-Ponty 1963, with respect to the difficulty of localizing a “nervous substance”).
Through my body, I can study what consciousness and communication do to me and can
try to differentiate one thing from the other. But that does not make my body any more
real than my consciousness and is even no more real than communication.
Here we come up to a point where the sociology of communication must recognize its
boundaries. For that reason, we have taken care to mention and elaborate on the problem
of perception already in the introduction to this book. In actual fact, we should start from
here to outline a science of cognition, in which biology and neuropsychology ,
psychology and sociology participate equally. Heinz von Foerster has already been able

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to envisage this science of cognition in the Biological Computer Laboratory at the

University of Illinois, Urbana, and Francisco J. Varela has written one of its first
programmatic statements (von Foerster 1995; Varela 1990), but that is where things have
remained so far. However, that will presumably change. For that reason as well, we have
placed so much emphasis on mathematical intuitions in this introduction. They are most
likely to be appropriate for putting topics to the individual sciences, without taking their
respective problematics away from them. That is because one topic on its own is not
enough. Since Max Weber’s times, it has been known that sciences can only then be
successful when they have also found their own problematics to match the topics (Weber
1949). Perhaps this is not the case for cognitive science yet.
For the sociological theory of communication here set out, we are anyway relying
largely on sociology and its problematic, which consists in the question as to how social
order is possible in the difference between definiteness and the lack of it in human
behaviour (Simmel 1950). The knowledge about the differentiations within human
consciousness and about the differentiations within the neuropsychology of brain and
body is something we are incorporating. However, we are refraining from any attempt to
ascertain a human reality in advance, in order to gauge what it apparently is, by way of
communication, that livens up the world besides. Instead, we are going with Warren
McCulloch, who has so refined his own biology, neurophysiology and philosophy that it
suffices, when describing human behaviour, including possible ethical claims on this
behaviour, to assume that a human being is also a Turing Machine, in which, of course,
only two feedback mechanisms are determined: “a desire to play and a desire to win”
(McCulloch 1989: 200).

Dirk Baecker, Form and Forms of Communication

2. A Model

2.1 Form

The interest in a concept of form for the social is not new. Karl Marx shared it as much a
Georg Simmel did. For both, “form” was still, on the one hand, externality, something
merely accidental in relation to the substance and content of a thing, which means
whatever can be differentiated from the material that comprises what is actually
substantial, what really ought to be investigated, hence what is essential. On the other
hand, however, “form” is what enables an analytical access to an issue and, in fact, an
access, which now aims at relations, at links to something other, and, then again, is suited
to investigating how the elements of a phenomenon we are interested in are influenced,
marked and formed by the particular relation in which they are standing, indeed are, in
the last analysis, scarcely anything else than the relation in which they are standing. Both
seem to resist the insight into the merely relational character of the objects interesting
them, but cannot avoid attributing to these relations their own substance, their own
reality, their own essence.
The analysis of the value form of goods, their “character as fetish”, in Marx’s Das
Kapital brings this precisely into focus. Here, the “simple” value form is not much more
than the apparent form of a good, which does not amount to its exchange value, but
contrasts this with its value, its exchange value. In the “unpacked” value form, however,
the good is a “citizen of this world”, because its value is not only determined from its
relation the value of another good, but from its relation to the entire world of goods. And:
“At the same time, the interminable series of value equations implies, that as regards the
value of a commodity, it is a matter of indifference under what particular form, or kind,
of use value it appears” (Marx 1990: chap. 1, section 3, B.1; see Backhaus 1997: 41ff.).
In an almost identical conceptualisation, Georg Simmel differentiates in the first
chapter of his Sociology under the title of the problem of sociology between the content
and material of socialisation existing in individuals’ “desire, interest, purpose, inclination,
mental state and movement”, that is, “the immediate concrete site of all historical
reality”, on one side, and the “forms of togetherness and for-one-anotheress (…), which
are subsumed under the title of the general notion of interaction (Wechselwirkung)”, on
the other side (Simmel 1950, my transl.). And the point of this differentiation consisted
for him too in being able to vary the content of socialisation and its forms independently

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of each other, which means being able to see that the same contents, for example,
economic interests, could appear in various forms, but the same forms, for example,
“superiority and inferiority, competition, imitation, division of labour, partisanship,
representation, simultaneity of joining together inwards and separation outwards”, could
also afford space for various contents (ibid.). This concept of form, aiming at structural
characteristics of social relations, has undeniably fascinated sociology (for instance
Parsons 1993: 50ff.), yet has not led so far to any efforts towards a particular type of form
Any such form theory would have to rid itself of the reverberations set off by
differentiating form from content, at least to the extent that both sides in differentiating
might appear again on both sides of differentiating, which means form might count as
contents, and content might be investigated as to its form. Dealing with differentiations in
this way, which is the precondition for not confusing differentiations with categorically
apportioning the things of the world, but taking them seriously as operative categories,
seems, nonetheless, to be not untypical for sociology (Abbott 2001: 10ff.). With Spencer
Brown, we speak of reintroducing a differentiation into the space of its differentiation.
Accordingly, it would be exactly not to the side of form that a form theory of this
sociological type would adhere and subsequently would have only fingertip contact with
everything material and substantial (Gumbrecht 1996: 580), yet it would understand the
operation of differentiation itself as substantial, as constructing a reality, and, to this end,
would have to assume at least that the differentiation becomes an event (Gumbrecht
1996: 587). Otherwise, it could not draw attention to itself.
For us, the essential step on the way to a possible form theory of the social lies in what
formalism offers and can be tested for. We speak of a formalism in mathematics when it
is a question of investigating structures, which are understood as relations between
elements, where the latter can, for their part, be relations (as the relations are elements of
the structures). As regards dealing with forms, the unease shared by Marx and Simmel
about only having to do, as and when, with the artificial, outward, accidental sides of a
phenomenon, surfaces here in the shape of the problem of abstraction: how much
abstraction is needed for us to be able to recognise structures without losing sight of the
fact that relations not only connect concrete elements, but have concrete meanings for
themselves? Structures, as Alfred Korzybski says (1958: 247ff.), are the only thing, about
which mathematics claims to know anything. Yet the only time this knowledge does not
lead into the madness of imagining the world’s order excessively simply is when it
remains aware of its abstraction: a formalism, as the conclusion from this thinking goes,

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is only helpful, if it puts the few variables on which it concentrates into the context of
keeping the endless number of reality’s variables in mind (Korzybsi 1958: 276).
However, in sociological research as well, formalisms under this premise have the
advantage of replacing with verifiable hypotheses all too facile and, in the end, always
correct post-hoc-interpretations of what interests sociology (Tilly 2004). What is more
interesting than the question as to whether sociology, in the light of its scientific interests,
ought to engage in formulating formalisms, or, in the light of social reality always only
partially covered by this interest, may not even begin to play with this thought, is,
therefore, the question as to what sort of formalisms it experiments with. That is because
there are indeed various formalisms, including the sort in which it is a matter of
proximity, simultaneity, connection or similarity (Tilly 2004: 595).
Our formalism of communication links up with Shannon’s suggested theory of
communication as selection and redundancy, but introduces an additional element
allowing the premises of a determined area of selection, that Shannon’s theory presents as
exogenous, to be made endogenous, in order to account for the circumstances that
communication, in engaging with everything surrounding it as stimulus and interference,
creates its own conditionality itself. In Ruesch and Bateson’s theory of communication,
this element bears the name of metacommunication (Ruesch/Bateson 1987: 203ff.):
communication is then possible, as is assumed, when it refers to itself and anchors itself
in the combination of ascertaining and uncertainty contained in every self-reference. This
idea renders the conditionalities of communication endogenous at the price of positing a
differentiation of levels, which Bateson (1979: 114ff.), here as elsewhere, does indeed
consider unproblematical in connection with the so-called theory of types from Bertrand
Russell and Alfred North Whitehead (1997), but which we believe we have had to, and
been able to, dismantle since Spencer Brown’s form calculation has created the
possibilities for integrating self-reference. These do indeed always come with the
possibility of paradoxes developing, yet simultaneously make unfolding such paradoxes
feasible via the introduction (installing) of differentiations (Luhmann 1999; Löfgren
1979; Kauffman 1987).
We, therefore, suggest a formalism, which makes both elements of Shannon’s
formalism explicit and hence into the object of communication’s operation and form.
Communication then comes about when Spencer Brown’s “indications” are established in
the context of his “distinctions”. With that, what we formulate comes very close to the
basic concepts of Spencer Brown’s calculation,

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“We take as given the idea of distinction and the idea of indication, and
that we cannot make the indication without drawing a distinction. We take,
therefore, the form of distinction for the form”; Spencer Brown 1972: 1),

and we have to deal with a very general concept of communication. Yet we will see that
this distinctiveness is effective enough, because, with that, communication is
differentiated from everything that is not in a position to look at and process a definition
with a view to the differentiation which accompanies it (Luhmann 1990b).
We denote the appropriate form as follows (Spencer Brown 1972: 65):

With this form, we can recognise the self-referential indication of communication to

communicating a indication in the context of a differentiation. The re-entry bracket also
maintains this self-referential indication and is to be read here and in what follows as
pointing to the endless re-application of differentiation in the context of differentiation.
Instead of a “indication”, we could also talk about a “message” or a “selection”. Here
our formalism does not differ from Shannon’s theory of communication. With Shannon,
communication results, as with us, in something being defined, which could not be
without this communication. The essential difference from Shannon’s theory lies in our
introducing the concept of “differentiation” and thereby indicating a further active and,
to that extent, endogenous element of communication, which consists in an event, an
object or a state being denoted by a message coming about only as a selection from a
range of possible messages and being one indicated by the indication itself presupposing
a differentiation. Unfortunately it cannot be formulated any easier, although what is at
issue declares that communication sets up and claims some sort of differentiation, a
tension, a contrast, a delimitation, a repetition or postponement, a delay or restoration, a
counterpart or counterblast (Deleuze 1994; Derrida 1982; Lyotard 1988), which
determine the room for possibilities, where the indication intended is then one possibility
among others. In the context of differentiation, indication alone is the information, with
which communication then works. Both, indication as much as differentiation, are,
however, treated as a variable in the general theory of communication we are formulating
here. That includes how other differentiations suggest other indications and how one

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indication becomes another in the context of another indication. The latter is particularly
evident in the case of the “antonym substitution”, of swapping a counter-concept: it
makes a difference whether people differentiate humans from animals (first counter-
concept) and consider humans rational, differentiate them from the gods (second counter-
concept) and recognise their mortality or differentiate them from machines (third counter-
concept) and look for their vitality.
It should be pointed out, that here the concept of differentiation does indeed mark the
exterior of the form of differentiation, yet has in itself, on the one hand, its own exterior
(the unmarked state to the right of the re-entry bracket) and, on the other, leaves open
how anything is differentiated here. We need both characteristics of the concept in the
context of our formalism, because we could not otherwise describe what concerns us,
namely, the process of defining the undefined. The differentiation we are talking about
here is capable of defining because it investigates, tests, feels out, structures and, amidst
all that, always lets imprecision in on the act. Only in this way does it set the framework
for a differentiation, which can then say and mean, what it means and says.
To this extent, this formalism also introduces again into the area of differentiation
what Paul Watzlawick, Janet H. Beavin and Don D. Jackson made prominent as the
differentiation between analog and digital aspects of communication, of which we believe
that they can essentially be differentiated more exactly for communication than for
processes in an organism or in the brain (Watzlawick/Beavin/Jackson 1967: 60 ff.; see
also von Neumann 1958: 22ff., for mixing analog and digital procedure). That may be the
case, but if so, then here as well only in the framework of an “analog” context of what is
“digitally” differentiated.
Our formalism is comprehensive, if we are clear about how it is to be read. We
suggest interpreting the equation we have just set out as a form describing
communication as introducing and stipulating of degrees of freedom. In setting both
indications and differentiations communication is free yet constrained in the way the one
relates to the other. Both do, however, belong together, so that we will repeatedly note
when observing concrete forms of communication how freedoms can only be risked in
the context of constraints, but, on the other hand, every constraint can only come about
and be regarded as a constraint on spaces for action.
The concept of the degree of freedom hails from physics and technology and allows a
system, a machine or another context to be described independently of the system-context
and simultaneously from the viewpoint of determining variables, for which certain spaces
for action are laid down. A degree of freedom simultaneously determines both: a free

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variable and its determining space for action (Bellmer 1962). The variables of our
concept of communication are indication and differentiation. We talk about degrees of
freedom for that reason that, in the area of their own conditionality, both cannot be
determined independently from each other or independently of the form of
communication they determine. In the ways it denotes and differentiates, communication
has the space for action it can and must use to settle for itself what are its own
This context of being differentiated we can also set down as form in an equation:

Here we are also concerned with a differentiation and with the context it creates, that
means: with two perspectives on the same form. We will come to see that doubling the
perspectives enables us, for the respective form, to talk about a constant differentiation
between two variables, which are dependent on each other but can be varied
independently of each other. And in addition, we must point out that there is a certain
space for action in deciding which of the two variables we set down on the interior and
which on the exterior of the form. We are concerned, as the re-entry bracket makes clear,
with a form re-entering the space of differentiation; and a form of this kind, according to
Spencer-Brown (1972: 58), deprives us of the complete knowledge “of where we are in
the form”. Re-entering forms confront us with the paradox of a differentiation, which, as
the context of something differentiated and depending of the perspective of observation,
is also removed, scarcely is it made. That is exactly what we want to exploit, however,
for our theory of the form and forms of communication.
To make setting down of the form calculation easier in the following, we will keep
largely to the rule of setting down the operation on the interior and the context of the
operation on the exterior of the form, in general terms:

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That does not, however, alter anything about the fact that the context of the operation is
indebted to an observer; they have to be invoked or otherwise actualised in order to
enable it to count for anything.
Niklas Luhmann described the formalism (he speaks of a “mechanism”) in
differentiating-and-denoting as a case of applying a “very much more general
mechanism” (Luhmann 1990: 81), which he specified by the concept of overflow
production-and-selection and termed it a variant of the context of destabilisation-and-
inhibition described by Alfred Gierer (1985: 140f.). We can argue about which is here the
more and which the less general formulation. Luhmann considers his formulation more
general, because it is motivated by complexity theory and hence makes a certain claim to
be the last word on how the world hangs together. I would consider Spencer Brown’s
formulation more general, because it does not even presume the world has a state, its
complexity, but only enquires into the type of operation, which is suitable for creating a
world. If we accept this as the more general formulation for our theory of
communication, we do, in fact, restrict this claim not a little. We talk about operations in
the medium of sense and leave open the question of how operations are constituted,
which happen in another medium and are then perhaps physical, chemical or organic. We
do not consider it unthinkable that Physics, Chemistry and Biology can work sensibly
with a concept of communication, which aims at procedures for defining what is
undefined. But we cannot decide this and, therefore, posit here a differentiation awaiting
further exploration.
In addition, other social theories also work with a formalism, which works with the
introduction and stipulation of degrees of freedom. Harrison C. White’s network theory
is, for example, an impressive case of work with a structurally similar formalism, which
points equally to the complementarity of space for action (“identity) and limitation
(“control”) combined and strives for a “calculus of trade-offs in uncertainty” (White
1992: 17-19, 1995a, 1995b).
Elsewhere as well, in philosophy, for example, we can rediscover the notion
underlying our formalism. When Kant speaks of reason – and its critique, Hegel of thesis
– and its antithesis, Heidegger of a clearing (Lichtung) – and its event, Sartre and Lévinas
of the other – and its gaze, Gadamer of prejudices – and their resolution, and Derrida of
postponement – and its postscript, the same idea of the combination of opening up and
restricting lies at the bottom of them. When composers compose, painters paint, writers
write, directors direct and researchers research, when teachers teach and schoolchildren
learn, doctors treat and patients submit to treatment, judges sentence and accused accept

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the verdict, priests pray and believers believe, politicians decide and voters re-elect them,
something similar happens each time: a space is opened up and subsequently restricted, in
the course of which the restriction remains convincing exactly as long as the space, in
which it takes place, remains visible.
The formalism, with the help of which we want to define the phenomenon of
communication and identify the problematic of this phenomenon, presumes an
interpretation of all the termini or of the elements, as the case may be, of the equation
formulated above. The equation

postulates a structural context consisting of the following elements:

a) “communication”, what is to be determined and what determines itself
through the term to the right of the equals sign;
b) “=”, the equals sign, the indication that this formalism is only a setting out, a
determination (of communication) in the context of a differentiation (of determination
and differentiation) and, to that extent, points back to the theory that justifies it and stands
and falls in as far as it is maintained;
c) “determination”, selecting a message;
d) “differentiation” , constructing an area of selection produced by selecting a message
as conditionality for the possibility of selection;
e) “ ”, marking the differentiation of the determination makes introducing the
degree of freedom of the selection of a determination explicit, without which the
determination could also be interpreted as given exogenously, for example, as motivated
by the thing determined;

f) “ ”, marking the differentiation and the reintroduction of the differentiation of

determination into the space of differentiation makes the self–stipulation of the
possibilities given by the determination explicit, as these possibilities can only be realised
in the framework of a determination; and finally
g) “ ”, the unmarked state to the right of the re-entry bracket, which draws attention
to the fact that constructing a differentiation for the purpose of contextualising the
selection of a determination allows, for its part, the exterior of a form to be included,

Dirk Baecker, Form and Forms of Communication

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which can be observed concurrently, in order to reflect the selectivity of this construction
as well.
This formalism fulfils both our conditions named above. It abstracts, yet includes a
consciousness of its abstraction, as marking both determination and differentiation can be
observed as setting boundaries, which recombine what they shut out into the resultant
form. And it formulates a structural context, which impels framing determinations,
differentiations, as well as introducing and stipulating degrees of freedom, if we are
going to talk about communication.
This is the reason why we reach back here for Spencer Brown’s concept of form.
Beyond any other, this concept is in a position to observe a differentiation as a context of
what has been differentiated without, for instance, tracing the production of this context
back to an already given cosmos, to fate or to nature, but to the contingent operation, the
praxis of an observer, who establishes this difference but could also establish another.
Getting used to this concept takes time. That is because scarcely anything else contradicts
our European thinking, interested as it is in categorical clarity, more than the invitation to
extrapolate from the differentiation straight to the difference and the form this claims,
that is to the context of what has been differentiated. The concept of form describes an
indefinite definiteness, into which definitions, both differentiated and capable of
differentiation from the observer’s perspective, can inscribe themselves. That is exactly
what makes it a concept of relations, which can be understood alternatively to the concept
of causality – as this combines what is defined with what is certain – and which is, just
so, suitable as a canvas for the work on a concept of communication, which is what
interests us here.
Our formalism goes beyond the dialectical use of the concept of form by Marx and
Simmel, harking back to contradictions or alternations respectively, because the structure
attributed to a phenomenon is more precisely described. However, it takes up both
authors’ intuition on a concept of form, which consists in that concept aiming to enable
identifying connections between elements themselves possessing, on the one hand, the
status of elements and, on the other, being so interpreted that these elements could not
possibly be what they are without their relations. In consequence, our formalism obviates
differentiating between element and relation, as it underpins older systems theories, and
replaces it with an operative calculation, a formalism capable of reckonings. Just as much
as relations, elements are then understood as operations, which initially have to take
place, so that subsequently an observer has any chance of differentiating them qua
element and relation. In differentiating between element and relation, this culminates in

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also having to look for an excluded third factor (Bahm 1969), where in our case
communication, deployed into our formalism’s termini, conceals itself.

2.2 Play

In one essential aspect, the formalism of our theory of communication touches on an

intuition from the mathematical theory of play as formulated by John von Neumann and
Oskar Morgenstern. Here, games have been introduced as solutions to the balancing
problem of individuals maximising rational strategies of behaviour. Games were
understood as those “standards of behaviour” or respectively “established orders of
society”, which then strike a balance, when it excludes individuals’ behaviours depending
on each other, so that each individual one controls the variables it wants to maximise in
the way its behaviour functions (von Neumann/Morgenstern 1972: 40ff., and see 11ff.
and 31ff.).
The theory of games gives the methodological individualism of economic theory the
interesting twist of linking individuals’ maximising calculations to pursuing strategies,
which are not thinkable without the knowledge of socially maintained standards of
behaviour and social arrangements. That is because these standards and arrangements
come into play where every single individual has to realise that it does not live in a
Robinson-Crusoe-economy, but that crucial variables of their own behavioural function
are controlled by other individuals. As soon as Robinson Crusoe is not dealing with the
wilderness any more, but it is Cru who has to do with Soe, according to the focus John G.
Gurley and Edward S. Shaw bring to the problem (Gurley/Shaw 1960: 141f.), it becomes
uncertain, which behaviour leads to which results. Hence, it becomes necessary, not only
practically and empirically, but also on the level of a theoretical justification of ways to
ensure a balance, that additional variables are introduced, which absorb the uncertainty,
because they manifestly cannot be influenced either by Cru or Soe. A methodological
collectivism joins the methodological individualism, if “collectivism” is here allowed to
mean that variables are examined, which result from the interdependence of individual
behaviour, that is, from the fact of the social. The concept of strategy incorporates this
problematic, because, with an eye on the interdependence of individual behaviour, it
permits deriving advantages from self-definition, that is, from stipulating introduced
degrees of freedom. Schelling (1960) formulated this precisely for a theory of strategic
behaviour in politics (Schelling 1960; see also the ambiguous notion of “strategy” in von
Neumann/Morgenstern 1972: 79). Economic theory finds it difficult to call on the factor

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of interdependence not only for the results of strategic behaviour but also for the
problematic of strategy, as above all Robert Axelrod documents with his investigations of
possible solutions to the prisoner’s dilemma (Axelrod 1984).
However, another intuition from von Neumann and Morgenstern is more important for
us. From the description of the interdependence of individuals’ behaviour, they use
complexity theory explicitly to derive an access to their problematic, which excludes
depending on differential equations from mathematical physics for describing this
behaviour; instead what would suggest itself is working with combinatorics and set
theory (von Neumann/Morgenstern 1972: 45). Through mathematical research
developing familiarity with non-linear equations and particularly with recursive
functions, it might have since become more optimistic as regards solving complex
problematics, that is, ones not susceptible to framing with either causal or statistical
descriptions (Weaver 1948; Morin 1974; Waldrop 1992). At this point, we can leave this
to one side. For us, it is interesting that the quantity theory advanced by von Neumann
and Morgenstern is attractive because it permits the development of behavioural
functions, which work systematically with limited information, with lack of knowledge,
and from this it demonstrates how the social orientation of behaviour is anchored in the
strategies of individual behaviour. If we know that we do not know something decisive,
we cannot avoid observing other people’s behaviour to see what it can, under the
circumstances, say about what we do not know.
How von Neumann and Morgenstern introduce the notion of not knowing is itself
worth considering, because it possibly allows building a bridge from the Marxist analysis
of commodity form to Luhmann’s version of constructivism. That is because the decisive
concept for von Neumann and Morgenstern is a version of quantity theory, which they
call theory of partitions, a theory of dividing or separating quantities containing
information and excluding each other. That reminds us of the dialectic of opposites or
also of the contradiction between exchange value and use value on which rests the
analysis of commodity form by Marx, who uses these opposites or contradictions in terms
of form theory for investigating precisely the mutual restriction of opposites into a single
form of commodity. And that is reminiscent of Niklas Luhmann’s suggestion, going on
from the epistemology of constructivism to formulate a definition of reality, which does
not equate this in a pre-Kantian manner with fiction and invention, but has it deriving,
after Kant, from a process of criticism and of critical correction, namely from opposing
internal operations with internal operations (Luhmann 1995b: 96, 168f.). Reality is no
longer something recognisable as an external world by dint of its opposition to

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knowledge, but reality is only something recognisable by dint of contradictory

knowledge, that is: strictly internally.
It is the same notion, but without wanting to understand it dialectically or through
cognitive theory, that von Neumann and Morgenstern also formulate. A partition is a
differentiation separating quantities containing contrasting information: “a partition is a
system of pairwise mutually exclusive bodies of information –concerning an unknown
element of Ω [of a certain quantity, db] – none of which is absurd [that means an empty
quantity ∅, db] in itself. In other words: a partition is a preliminary announcement which
states how much information will be given later concerning an - otherwise unknown –
element of Ω; ie. to what extent the range of possibilities for this element will be
narrowed later. But the actual information is not given by the partition (…)” (von
Neumann/Morgenstern 1972: 67). In other words, partitions, divisions between quantities
of contrasting information, put a contrast in the place of a (still) unknown piece of
Partitions can expand our horizons yet further. Mathematically, they represent a
fundamentally additive understanding of a process of decomposition (Andrews 1976: 1).
That means, they allow observing of a differentiation and of cascades of further
differentiations with regard to the gain in aspects they are combining (Kauffman 1995).
A differentiation, recognisable by its two-sided form consisting of marked state and
unmarked state, also finds a definition where what is indefinite is always to be borne in
mind as a correlate of the definition. To this extent, the Spencer-Brown differentiation is
the general case to the specific von Neumann and Morgenstern case of partition: that is
because, where partition already reckons straightaway with later information resulting
from the course of the game, differentiation produces in the first place the unknown and
indefinite factors that, presumably, then make it actually worth our while playing, and, in
any case, force us to play too. The mathematical games theory relies on the sequentiality
of the moves, in which the outcome’s uncertainty is wound down move for move; by
contrast, a theory of communication relies on the generative moment of the game itself,
which arises from the differentiation and produces the uncertainty that makes it
worthwhile playing (Leifer 1991).
We adopt the concept of the game and build it into our model of communication.
What we mean by communication is to undertake moves, which lie respectively in an
individual’s interest, are related strategically to the necessity of considering the
perspectives and interests of other individuals and have this happen in a context, which is
in its nature heuristic, in the sense that it reckons with being able to find out, but not with

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having to know already, the necessary information for defining individual behaviour
through constructing contrasts in particular and differentiations in general. The future
being unknown, other participants’ perspectives - partially transparent anyway - surprises
from the practical situation, and not least uncertainties produced in the course of
communication, these are the materials from which the possibility of communicating
must be - indeed cannot be otherwise - constantly acquired anew, move by move and on
the basis of differentiations.
The concept of games formulates the same context as the concept of introducing and
stipulating degrees of freedom, yet underlines additionally, that such a stipulation may
not be confused with completely determining the situation of communication. The game
would be over, if, in each of its moves, the degrees of freedom already introduced were
not confirmed anew or new degrees of freedom not found in each of its moves. And all
the same, and only in this way, does the game’s remedy for retaining balance persist and,
in this sense, the continuity of communication.
We are retaining this idea of the game, as we introduce a further differentiation, which
goes beyond the conceptual framework of mathematical games theory, yet is arguably
compatible with its original insight: the differentiation between observations of the first
order and observations of the second order. Observations of the first order are the making
of differentiations for designating practical circumstances, be it objects, persons with
their names, or also time-horizons, including the proposition that the past is known, the
future unknown and the present is just that. And observations of the second order mean
observing differentiations with regard to them having a two-sided form, that is, including
what they exclude. Observations of the second order, therefore, mean simultaneously
observing observers, as differentiations only exist in as far as they are manufactured, as
Gregory Bateson, above all, has emphasised (Bateson 1972: 451ff.). This is an insight,
which does, not least, lead also to removing humanity’s privileged position, albeit
something questioned by gods, angels and spirits, of observing the world and of talking
about observations everywhere that differences are established, be it in and by organisms,
in and by machines, or in and by social systems.
Our formalism amounts to thinking about communication as integrating observations
of the first and of the second order. Observations of the first order exploit the degrees of
freedom in making designations, which observations of the second order introduce out of
differentiations. The concept of games then allows formulating the thesis that
communication can gain stability, that is, a robustness under changing circumstances and
a reproducibility over the course of time, but not as some sort of interaction among

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observers of the first order, and only as a game of observation of the second order. That is
because observations of the second order are the ones reckoning with the interdependence
of observers and drawing their conclusions from the observers’ differentiations in the
context of what accompanies these differentiations as things not known.
With the help of this gesture towards differentiating between observations of the first
and second orders, it is possible to think of the mathematical games concept paired with a
constructivist games concept, as Gregory Bateson has advanced it (Bateson 1972: 177ff.,
1956; see Miller 1973; Baecker 1999). In this game concept, it is a matter of describing
the metacommunication accompanying all communication with regard to all boundaries
accepted by the respective communication so that they are constantly being more or less
casually tested, and this is something which is not otherwise possible with borders, as it
happens from both sides. It is constantly coming to small or also greater transgressions
and progressions, which are performed and sanctioned in the framework of the
accompanying correction of mistakes and only allow in this form an initial determination
of the situation and the framework of the situation in a dependable way for everyone
involved. According to this concept, games make the framework of a situation accessible
in the situation. Using Spencer Brown’s conceptualisation, we can say that they make
accessible the differentiation designating a situation, with its two sides, hence with what
designates it and with what it includes as things excluded, in the situation for the
situation. This notion, in any case, accords with the games concept of von Neumann and
Morgenstern in as far as this re-introduction of the situation’s framework through testing
the two sides of the framework is the conditionality for making visible that “pattern of
information”, which von Neumann and Morgenstern aim for with their concept of
partition, as do we with our concept of the form of differentiation.
Those levels in stipulating degrees of freedom as games are what our model is aiming
at. However, they are this only because in them observers of a second order come to
consult each other over observations of the first order, agreeing just as much as dissenting
(Hahn 1989), which can then count as the object and material of communication.

2.3 Space

In his book Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft Niklas Luhmann formulates the conditions
a model of communication has to satisfy.
On the one hand, the concept of communication would have to be formulated as a
concept of form, in order to enable observing that every communication moves within a

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strange clutter of knowing and not knowing and includes, as things unsaid but reflected
besides, what it excludes. Otherwise, we would not be able to consider that
“communication finds its trigger typically in ignorance” (Luhmann 1997: 40, my transl.)
hence in what we ourselves or others still do not know, in what we would like to find out
but not thematize, in what we would like to dispel as a trepidation by speaking about
something else, in what is meant to be subsequently possible by making the issue initially
something else, and so on.
And on the other hand, were we to think of constructing a model at all (constructing a
model would always amount to deeming the object of the model to be stable anyway) we
would have to so construct a model, that the object, here communication, can be
demonstrated in its complexity and fluidity, “and that means above all: in its richness in
possibilities which remain ignored” (Luhmann 1997: 74, Fn. 95, my transl.).
Our model measures itself against both claims. In its centre stands a formalism, setting
the conditions for the intended discussion of the form of communication. And its basis is
a concept of form, which aims for the dynamic of including the excluded. We will
attempt to furnish the proof for this statement in what follows by not only talking about
the form (in the singular), but also about the forms (in the plural) of communication. We
unfold, translate, risk our formalism in a plethora of various forms of communication, in
which the structure of communication identified in our model, a designation in the
context of a differentiation, remains constant, whilst both the designation and the
differentiation fixing it in context vary in the way they are set.
With that, we claim that our formalism of communication also functions as an
algorithm (von Foerster 1971), which means, as an unequivocal, definite process for
schematically solving more than the one problem: What is communication?, but rather a
whole class of problems: How does communication function in the context of interaction,
organisation, protest movement and society? What role do the signifying functions
system, person, medium, network, evolution play? And how can communication be
Spencer Brown’s concept of form fosters the fulfilment of these claims on two levels.
In the first place, his understanding of the arithmetic and algebra in his calculation of
form is decisive for what follows. The arithmetic, expressed with the aid of the brackets,
which are understood as indexes of the differentiations made, concerns itself with the
constants of a form; the algebra expressed with the aid of letters or terms repectively,
which are written into the states the differentiations mark, concerns itself with the

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variables of a form (Spencer Brown 1973, 2nd session). We, therefore, interpret every
appearance of a form,

as a pointer to realising a communication, in order to look subsequently, with an eye to

the way the form’s variables are assigned, at what specific form, one of those “forms
taken out of the form” (Spencer Brown 1972: 3ss), we have to deal with in any given
As already said, we hence run the risk of interpreting Spencer Brown’s general
mathematical calculation of form too specifically as a formalism of communication, yet
we counter this risk by justifying our method with the thesis that Spencer Brown’s
calculation of form is one of the many configurations, where communication’s matter and
the problematic has been discovered in the 20th century, without necessarily describing it
as one too. Other configurations, where communication’s matter and problematic have
been discovered, are cybernetics, systems theory and constructivism, here explicitly, as
well as semiotics, structuralism and deconstruction, here more exactly implicit. We are
only signalling this thesis here, without being able to justify it otherwise than through
rehearsing it exemplarily in the context of this book.
In any case, what is decisive is that this relationship of constants and variables on the
level of arithmetic and algebra of form is the conditionality for an operative, dynamic and
complex understanding of the model of communication, because, on the basis of this
understanding, we can extrapolate the unity of the model into the diversity of the
phenomena it can comprehend. Here, how, for their part, unity and diversity relate is, as
is fitting in the context of a complexity theory, predetermined, something people have in
recent years got used to formulating as a relationship of self-similarity (Mandelbrot 1982,
1983). Sociology already interprets this relationship of self-similarity through form
theory in the best sense, as it derives it from self-application, that is: from recursion,
iteration and the re-entry of differentiations, even if it does not, to that end, have recourse
to Spencer Brown’s mathematics (Abbott 2001: 10ff., 157ff.; S. Fuchs 2001: 251ff.).
The second level, on which Spencer Brown’s concept of form accords with our claims
for our model is his understanding of the “space” of differentiation. What we understand
by this space matches more recent philosophical tradition and matches encounters with

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modern physics in not being the externally given, absolute space, but a space arising first
and foremost from concrete operations of differentiation (Heidegger’s Ent-fernung,
Derrida’s inscription) (Minkowski 1984; Einstein 1956: 3f.; Heidegger 1967: §§23, 24,
70; Derrida 1997; see Baecker 2005b). A space arises, when a differentiation is made. In
any case, and this is a major reason why it is prudent to formulate the concept of
differentiation as a form concept, this space does not perhaps arise as the delimited space
of the differentiation, but as this delimitation itself and the conditionality for it. A space is
always already a space in other spaces, although orientating oneself in these spaces is
only possible out of one space at a time. That is what governs, on the one hand, thinking
of every differentiation as a boundary and being able to observe it with regard to both its
sides, yet at the same time never being able, on the other, to overlook how we can only
undertake this observation, if we (a consciousness, a communication, an organism) make
a differentiation for our part, that is, fixing a space and occupying it. Observing diverse
perspectives is only possible from one single perspective.
In our model of communication, we speak, therefore, of a formalism determining the
space of communicative possibilities, as it repeatedly delimits it anew, extends and
restricts it and in this way has it expanding and contracting according to the extent of the
differentiations used.
Under the rubric of forms (in the plural) of communication, we will study a plethora
of possibilities for introducing and stipulating degrees of freedom. Yet, that requires
always bearing mind how this introduction and stipulation of degrees of freedom is itself
a process of communication. This finds expression in the two terms, transmission and
subversion, as Spencer Brown conceptualises the calculation of form. “Transmission” is
intended to mean that, in a manner only calculation can describe, every variable of a form
relates to every other variable to varying degrees openly and covertly (Spencer Brown
1972: 59). This is exactly what differentiation as description of a context is actually
meant to highlight. And “subversion” is meant to mean that forms of a differentiation re-
entering the space of differentiation are conceivable, and they result in partially
destroying the constants’ characteristics as differentiations (ibid.: 62). This subversion
happens from the outside in, which means it merges communication’s excluded
possibilities into its delimited states and thus endangers differentiation itself, if we do not
consider the context of both sides of differentiation as a product of differentiating.
It is possible that Spencer Brown’s calculation is, in actual fact, the calculation of
communication we have been waiting for since Karl Marx’s theory of capitalism,
Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis and Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, in

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order to get a line on a complex of “communicating tubes”, which conflate separation and
relation, causing constant confusion (Breton 1990). That would mean, among other
things, that in this present book we have only derived the very first steps from what the
calculation envisages as possibilities for doing assessment. To be precise, we are not even
calculating yet, but are only looking at what are the constants and variables we would
have to reckon with, as soon as we are more familiar with the formalism here presented
and its accompanying conceptualisation as a model.

Dirk Baecker, Form and Forms of Communication