Systems theory

Systems theory, to be brief, originated as a response to the Western analytic science of the seventeenth century that was characteristically ‘closed’ and mechanistic. That is to say, using broad strokes, classical science sought to isolate entities from their environment in order to observe them in their ‘purity’. However, this scientific methodology of detaching units from their context or ecology was exhausted once it was found to be an inappropriate form of inquiry and came to be effectively replaced by processes of interchange and exchange. Of particular significance was the collapse of vitalism or essentialism that held individual entities to be timeless and fixed, doubtless a product of the Darwinian natural selection of species.1

The alternative that systems theory offered to science was, in contrast, significantly more open and ‘living’: “The system is regulated, restrained, contained by control mechanisms such as negative feedback, both internal and environmental, but at the same time is able to depart in different degrees and on different levels from the regulatory norm.”2 The system, stated differently, is simultaneously limited and free. Or again, it is in a strange sense both finitely closed and infinitely open.

So while a given system is constrained by its own self-governance and internal rules it is always possible to transgress these positive determinations without completely undermining the whole organization. Moreover, systems theory, like modern technological science, rejects teleological premises that unequivocally determine the finality or future of an entity.

However, in line with traditional Western science since the seventeenth century, systems theory does accept a certain form of direction inherent to all organisms or programs: “it seeks primarily to preserve, to reproduce itself, that is, to perpetuate and reproduce an invariant structure (the code or programme). The code is, in a very special sense, the memory of the system, and its function is essentially a conservative one: to transmit an invariant structure.”3 But as Johnson goes on to say, the structure is always susceptible to contamination, interference and mutation. The point here is that there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ system or code. Rather, the drift of minimal difference—a differing with itself—is integral to the process of transmission and reproduction in any given system and is the necessary precondition for new structures or life to emerge at all.

1 “To give a more specific example – which is also more general, but in the present context by no means arbitrary – one could say that the process of evolution is not an ascent of species towards some determinate apex of development, but the selection after the event of mutations most amenable to environmental constraints. By virtue of a feedback process (both positive and negative) the genetic code is therefore regulating (before) but also regulated (after) in the sense that its pro-gramme is executed in a context that is perpetually changing, hence perpetually modifying the conditions of possibility of the code.” Christopher Johnson, System and Writing in the Philosophy of Jacques Derrida (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 169.

2 Johnson, System and Writing, 146.

3 Johnson, System and Writing, 147.


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