Social Oscillations

Later in our history, after notions of oscillations in nature were already well established, society turned to itself to observe phenomena of oscillation. Most likely, these phenomena were connected to the oscillations observed in nature from the beginning: Oscillations in the shape of the moon were connected to observed oscillations in human fertility (Koukkari & Sothern 2006: 207), and in a more hands-on approach, oscillations in the developments of local civilizations laid the ground for the narratives we know as history (Hall 1999). Early historians observed the rise and fall of city states, mapping changes in their outward standing to developments of their inner structure, often questions of hierarchy and personal interests in power among the leading classes (for examples of ancient Greek historians, see Romilly 1991). The oscillatory nature of these processes was established through their media of success, or symbolically generalized communication media, as Niklas Luhmann (1995: 161) would call them much later: Power could be had or not had, but it was not an endless resource. In order for one actor to gain power, usually others had to lose theirs. Therefore, observations of oscillating ownership of power could be correlated to observations of oscillating fitness in physical ability or favorable connections among the elite, for example. Similarly, power and greed could be correlated, the latter often closely following the former. Narratives of excessive greed causing loss of power legitimization could then be constructed (for an overview, see Newhauser 2000), winning popularity for the historians and providing useful negative examples for aspiring politicians to publicly separate themselves from.

The field of economics has established that ownership not just of power, but as a concept in general is prone to oscillations, despite or because of all efforts by actors to only or at least primarily achieve gains. In economics, this is generally known as the business cycle (see Diebold & Rudebusch 1999). Ownership is, however, always coupled with the risk of loss, and periodic up- and downturns can be observed in most economic fields. Often, observers again try to map these ups and downs to periodic influences from the outside, in an effort to build up knowledge about complexity in the contexts of their actions, ultimately with the hope of avoiding future losses. For markets in general, periodic cycles between crises and times of prosperity have been made out (Gordon 1986), emerging decoupled from individual attempts by actors to maximize their gains and minimize their losses. Niklas Luhmann (1994: 188) has suggested the code of owning / not owning as the foundation of economic actions. When just focusing on economic processes, the state of individual participants can thus be described as oscillating between owning and not owning, with many possibilities of ambiguity and uncertainty when it comes to determining the actual states. Complex, multi-layered strategies of abstraction and deception have evolved from this, even making it possible for actors to be in both states at the same time. Nevertheless, the theory promises that in principle, even global crises of the financial system are at their core abstractions of many simple oscillations between owning and not owning and their constellations towards each other. On the basic level, an actor might expect three outstanding payments within a week, and still be solvent herself, i.e. be in a state of ownership. Now, if two of the three expected payments turn into non-payments, this may have the devastating effect of changing the state of this actor to payment being impossible, thus to not owning. This basic level may usually be obscured by many layers of abstraction, yet through in-depth analysis of observations, it can be uncovered, provided the processes of abstraction are made available to observation.

Luhmann (1997) has shown that similar oscillations between two opposing states can be found in all the different subsystems of society he investigated, for example in science itself, in religion, or the judicial system. In all of these cases, oscillations occur between two discrete states, and not on a continuous scale. One might argue that this is different for the oscillations observed in nature, as described above. After all, the sun is rising a little more towards the left or right each day, and populations increase or decrease in more or less small steps. In all of the cases described above, observations of the in-between states are crucial for the understanding of the oscillation as a whole. Hegel (1986: 228) has described this duality of continuous and discrete elements in his Wissenschaft der Logik, pointing out that both can be seen as constructions in the perspective of the other, and that both are at the same time discrete and continuous. Singling out one at the expense of the other is a common technique to construct causalities. Let us for a moment return to the first example of the change in the sun’s path across the sky: The underlying observation can be broken down to an oscillation between the two discrete states “the sun is rising a little more to the left today” versus “the sun is rising a little more to the right today”. An observation of the second order is then already required to observe the change in states, and to thereby mark the all-important events of solstices. In the following sections, we will investigate the epistemic consequences and possibilities of dealing with these oscillations integrating discrete states of existence.

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