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Modernization and the Noble/Common Distinction: Reading Modern Literature through Luhmannian and Foucauldian Lenses



This article draws on Luhmannian and Foucauldian social theories to analyze the decline of the nobility/commoner distinction. Evidence from seventeenth-and eighteenth-century tracts, treatises, letters, novels, and other sources suggests that the distinction between the nobility and the commoner lost currency as functional differentiation overruled social stratification in the second half of the eighteenth century. But to preserve a sense of difference, defenders of the nobility/commoner distinction adopted a true nobility/pretended nobility distinction, according to which the hereditary nobility possessed noble qualities by nature while the rising commoners could acquire only false nobility. Functional differentiation was met with a counter-movement that attempted to establish a tighter, grid-like social order in place of the looser medieval social order. Finally, the complexity-sustainability trade-off principle helps to explain why the hereditary nobility might have ignored the seemingly clear evidence of an impending threat to their privileged status.
Modernization and the noble/common distinction: Reading
modern literature through Luhmannian and Foucauldian
Carlton L. Clark
Department of English, University of
Wisconsin, La Crosse, WI, USA
Carlton L. Clark, University of Wisconsin,
La Crosse, WI, USA.
This article draws on Luhmannian and Foucauldian social theories to analyse
the decline of the nobility/commonerdistinction. Evidence from 17thand
18thcentury tracts, treatises, letters, novels, and other sources suggests that
the distinction between the nobility and the commoner lost currency as func-
tional differentiation overruled social stratification in the second half of the
eighteenth century. But to preserve a sense of difference, defenders of the
nobility/commoner distinction adopted a true nobility/pretended nobility
distinction, according to which the hereditary nobility possessed noble quali-
ties by nature, whereas the rising commoners could acquire only false nobility.
Functional differentiation was met with a countermovement that attempted to
establish a tighter, gridlike social order in place of the looser medieval social
order. Finally, the complexitysustainability tradeoff principle helps to explain
why the hereditary nobility might have ignored the seemingly clear evidence of
an impending threat to their privileged status.
complexitysustainability tradeoff, Michel Foucault, modern world literature, Niklas Luhmann,
systems theory
On the most recent (2010) U.S. census form, there are
boxes to check to indicate every household members'
sex, age, race, relationship to the person filling out the
form, and whether the person sometimes resides some-
where else. There is not an item asking whether any
household member belongs to the nobility or is a person
of lower rank. Why is this question not on the question-
naire? In attempting to answer this admittedly strange
question, this paper draws on the social theories of Niklas
Luhmann and Michel Foucault and references several lit-
erary texts. Citing evidence from tracts, treatises, letters,
and other texts published in the 17th and 18th centuries,
along with literary works from the early 19th to the early
20th centuries, I argue that the distinction between the
nobility and the commoner lost currency as functional
differentiation overruled social stratification in the sec-
ond half of the 18th century.
Yet beyond this perhaps
unsurprising argument, I go on to argue that the conser-
vative discourse fell back on a true nobility/pretended
nobilitydistinction, according to which the hereditary
nobility possessed noble qualities by nature,whereas
the rising commoners could acquire only false or
pretended nobility. In supporting this argument, I incor-
porate the concept of the complexitysustainability
tradeoff (Valentinov, 2014).
For the sake of readability, from this point on, I will refer to the late
17th through the 18th centuries as the classical age. In this, I follow
Michel Foucault's example.
Received: 8 June 2019 Revised: 18 September 2019 Accepted: 23 September 2019
DOI: 10.1002/sres.2637
Syst Res Behav Sci. 2019;115. © 2019 John Wiley & Sons, 1
Luhmannian systems theory takes difference as its
point of departure and difference is produced when dis-
tinctions are drawn (Luhmann, 1995; SpencerBrown,
1979/2015). This paper concerns a particular kind of dis-
tinctionthe digital distinction, which Roth (2019)
describes as mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive.
Thus, the digital distinction follows the law of the
excluded middle, tertium non datur. By this definition, dig-
ital/analogue is not a digital distinction because we cannot
rule out a third or an infinite number of distinctions along
a digitalanalogue continuum. In contrast, a simple case
of a digital distinction is inside/outside. If we draw a circle
and a pointthe line having length but no width and the
point having no dimensions at all, only positionthe
point must be either inside or outside the circle. There is
no third possibility. Taking a historical perspective,
another digital distinction is premodernity/modernity.
When considering the premodernity/modernity distinc-
tion, I am most concerned with yet another distinction
nobility/commoner, a distinction that (in daily discourse
rather than historical studies) became increasingly diffi-
cult to make. Nobility/commoner is a digital distinction
because it is mutually exclusive (one person cannot be both
noble and common) and jointly exhaustive of all human
beings below the level of princesin the premodern social
order. In the premodern Great Chain of Being, the nobility
was positioned beneath the sovereign monarch and
princes but above the commoner (Lovejoy, 1936). The
noble/common distinction became increasingly difficult
to make after about the year 1760 in the United Kingdom,
the Netherlands, France, and the German states.
This change was likely stimulated by the emergence
of functional differentiation, a key concept in social
systems theory. This article is not the place for a
detailed explanation or analysis of functional differentia-
tion. It must suffice to say that functional differentiation
refers to the emergence in the classical age of
operationally autonomous systems, including a political
system, a legal system, and a market economy system.
Roth and Schütz (2015) make a case for 10 function
For my purposes, the key point is that when opera-
tionally autonomous function systems emerged, tradi-
tional noble or aristocratic privileges were lost. As
Luhmann (2013b) notes, stratification in premodern
Europe was based largely on legal distinctions. There
were once different laws for different social strata. But
under functional differentiation, there is one legal sys-
tem that applies to everyone. Of course, there are still
distinct military and ecclesiastical legal systems; how-
ever, these systems do not cover everyone. A single mar-
ket economy open to anyone with money to spend was
particularly disruptive for the traditional social order.
When a commoner has the money to purchase the
trappings of nobility, or even nobility itself, the market
economy system overrules hereditary social stratifica-
tion. At least as far back as the 16th century, noble
status could be directly purchased, and in France,
ennoblement by buying an office had already become,
by 1600, the classic way of entering the nobility(Doyle,
2009, p. 11). A commoner might be granted or purchase
actual noble status or at least purchase the markers
of nobility, such as a manor house or a decorative
walking stick (which replaced the sword in the 17th
century). Or if one wanted to learn how to behave
like the nobility, one could read a book such as
Adam Petrie's Rules of good deportment, or of good
breeding, for the Use of Youth, published in Edinburgh
in 1720.
Under such conditions, what was left for the old,
hereditary nobility? How could they continue to see
themselves as a distinct breed of people? One resource
was found in the true/false distinction, along with related
distinctions such as natural/artificial and legitimate/pre-
tended. The hereditary nobility claimed the positive side
of these distinctions and assigned the negative side to
the commoners. From the perspective of the old nobility,
the upstarts or parvenusmight purchase a few markers
of nobility but still lack naturalnoble qualities, such as
good taste, grace, conversational skill, and wit. In this
view, true nobility is natural, in the blood; it cannot be
purchased or learned through books or tutors. Thus,
upwardly mobile commoners could only pretend to have
noble qualities. They were ostentatious, vulgar, and
I will not make any claims about the beginningof modernization
because social change happens in tiny, hardly noticeable increments
(Tarde & Parsons, 1890/1962). We might do better to say that moderni-
zation became irreversible in the late 18th century, but this is still an
oversimplification. To trace beginnings leads to an infinite regress as
we make everfiner distinctions. This being said, however, the mid
1750s1760s were pivotal years in the transition to modern society.
The following are a few milestones: In 1757, John Campbell invented
the sextant, an improved navigational device that enabled sailors to
measure latitude. In the late 1750s, a few scientists worked on improv-
ing the early 18thcentury Newcomen steam engine, and in 1763, James
Watt joined the project, bring the steam engine to market in 1776. In
1753, hydropower got a boost when French engineer Bernard Forest
de Bélidor published Architecture Hydraulique, which described vertical
and horizontalaxis hydraulic machines. In agriculture, the years from
1760 to 1820 are the years of wholesale enclosure in which rights to
common land were lost. This led to intensive farming and contributed
to the creation of a new, landless working class. Rousseau published
The Social Contract in 1762. The close of the Seven Years War came in
1763. James Boswell met Samuel Johnson for the first time in 1763. In
1768, in Edinburgh, the first volume of the Encyclopedia Britannica
appeared. Its editors intended it to be a complete summary of scientific
and human knowledge, incorporating the latest discoveries as part of a
coherent and graspable whole(Herman, 2001, pp. 6264)
Thus, with the aid of the true/false, legiti-
mate/pretended, natural/artificial distinctions, a sem-
blance of the noble/common distinction could be
preserved, at least for a while. It might be objected that
the hereditary nobility would be unlikely to declare them-
selves to be truly noblethis attribution would more
likely be made by others; nonetheless, if a person of any
social strataeven a commonerspeaks of the vulgarity,
ostentation, or bad taste of the rising commoner, then the
distinction between true nobility and false nobility is
being made.
In considering this argument, one might observe that
the distinction between true and false nobility was not
invented in the classical age, which is true. This distinc-
tion was made in late13thcentury Florence. As Lansing
(1991) writes,
[The] problem of the nature of true nobility
troubled late thirteenth and early
fourteenthcentury Florentines, including
Brunetto Latini, the poets of the dolce stil
novo, and Dante. By what right did some
men hold noble titles and prerogatives? Was
nobility based on inherited wealth and
honors, on the professional military, on an
aristocratic style of behavior? Most
important, what was the relationship
between nobility and moral character? Thus
the challenge to noble prerogatives in the
statutes was accompanied by philosophic
and literary discussion of the justification of
noble status. (p. 212)
In fact, this debate goes back much further, to St. Thomas
Aquinas and Aristotle.
But this observation brings up the
point that late13thcentury Florence had a lot in com-
mon with France, England, the German states, and else-
where in the classical age. In both historical contexts,
great new wealth was being created and the legitimacy
of a family's claims to noble status might be disputed.
Yet despite the ancient roots of the true nobility/false
nobility issue, there were important differences in the
classical age. For one thing, in 13thand 14thcentury
Florence, a person was still intimately tied to his or her
family. The 18thcentury concept of the individual, which
is discussed below, did not exist. And in general, the nat-
ural nobility/false nobility distinction became far more
significant in the classical age. This was a case of seman-
tic evolution, a phenomenon that accompanies structural
change in a society (Luhmann, 2012). In other words, the
true nobility/false nobility distinction offered a way to
make sense of structural changes in society. This distinc-
tion might buy the nobility some time and help them pre-
serve their identity, but semantic change cannot reverse
structural change or turn back time. One definition of
the passage of time is how long it takes for something
to become irreversible: The present lasts as long as it
takes for something to become irreversible(Luhmann,
1995, p. 78).
Still, the question that arises is why do new distinc-
tions emerge and old distinctions pass away? How does
a society move from one distinction to another? For
instance, good/evilis one very old distinction that, over
the last century or so, has lost currency. This change has
happened because the good/evil distinction no longer
carries the information value that it once did; that is to
say, it no longer contributes to efficient, everyday com-
munication. In many social contexts, the use of the word
evilwill produce an awkward pause or conversational
impasse. In other words, the conversation will pause or
shift to metacommunication, as the interlocutors discuss
what is meant by the term evil. Rather than discussing
whether something is evil, the interlocutors are likely to
discuss the intended meaning of the word. The decline
of the good/evil distinction exemplifies a change in moral
semanticsthat is, how a society talks about morality
(Hare, 1952).
As widespread social change happened in the classical
age, efforts were made to clarify the comparatively loose
medieval models of social order. This movement is
evident in the discourse on rank. For instance, in early
18thcentury England, a 24page tract was published
titled The Privileges of the Superior Nobility, Lords of
(1704), which states,
It is an established Maxim among such as
have written of Policy, and of sundry Sorts
of Government, that in all wellgovern'd
Commonwealths, a Distinction of Persons is
absolutely necessary: According to which it
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the French term prétentieux
appeared in the late 18th century, and pretentious entered the English
lexicon in 1832.
The Aristotelian and scholastic positions on the question were based
on a recognition of the difference between the social designation of
nobility and true nobility. The text that provoked scholastic commentary
on nobility was the section in the Politics in which Aristotle justified
slavery. There were, Aristotle argued, real differences in men, so that
some by nature were suited to labor and some to rule. He distinguished
between slavery by nature and slavery by law, suggesting that the supe-
rior in virtue should be master, and not the superior in force. In practice,
however, men have made the position of ruler hereditary.(Lansing,
1991, p. 213)
The place and year of publication are uncertain. Gale Eighteenth Cen-
tury Collections gives the publication place and year as London 1704?
hath been the Politick Prudence of this our
Nation [] to make a threefold Division of
Persons, namely,
1. The King or Sovereign Monarch; under
which Names also a sovereign Queen is
comprehended []
2. The Nobility, which do comprise Dukes,
Marquesses, Earls, Viscounts, and Barons
Spiritual and Temporal.
3. The Commons, by which general Words
are understood, Knights, Esquires,
Gentlemen, Yeoman, Artificers and
The fact that The Privileges of the Superior Nobility,
Lords of Parliament warranted publication in 1704 is evi-
dence of the trend to establish order in all areas of life, or
to reduce complexity in the face of rapid social change.
Complexity, from a systemstheoretical perspective,
equates to a system's horizon of possibilities, and systems
must make selections from this horizon of possibilities. A
horizon may be approached but never crossed, as it keeps
receding. Moreover, systems actually have two horizons,
or twin horizons,both of which are unreachable
(Luhmann, 1993). One horizon represents infinite possi-
bilities, and the opposite horizon represents zero possibil-
ities. Henry Ford, in 1909, famously said that consumers
could have a car in any color so long as it is black
(Ford, 1922). Of course, this is no choice at all, as long
as the person still wants a car. Similarly, Albert Einstein
reportedly wore the same colour of suit every day to avoid
wasting time and mental energy making a choice.
The point is that systems (social, psychic, and biologi-
cal) reduce environmental complexityor narrow the
range of possibilitiesin order to solve problems or,
more specifically, to reproduce themselves from moment
to moment. And in doing so, systems build up their own
internal complexity. As Luhmann (2012) puts it, [Evolu-
tionary] advances reduce complexity in order to organize
greater complexity on the basis of restriction. Thus a road
network reduces the possibilities for movement to enable
easier and faster movement and hence increase options
for movement concretely available(p. 306). Many cities
are built on a grid design for this reason. The grid design
restricts automobile and pedestrian movement while
enhancing the efficiency of movement.
As the 18th century progressed and social change
threatened to get out of hand, the establishment of clear,
unambiguous social rankingsor social gridsgrew
more urgent. Consider, for example, innovations in
18thcentury education. Foucault (1977) writes,
Graduallybut especially after 1762the
educational space unfolds; the class
becomes homogeneous, it is no longer made
up of individual elements arranged side by
side under the master's eye. In the
eighteenth century, rankbegins to define
the great form of distribution of individuals
in the educational order: rows or ranks of
pupils in the class, corridors, courtyards;
rank attributed to each pupil at the end of
each task and each examination; the rank
he obtains from week to week, month to
month, year to year; an alignment of age
groups, one after another; a succession of
subjects taught and questions treated,
according to an order of increasing
difficulty. (pp. 14647)
The urge to establish greater order is evident in the
incessant drawing up of tables and grids. Botanists drew
up tables to classify plants, and Gissis (2011) observes
that this mode of organizing flora, applied to living as
well as inanimate nature, created hierarchies based on
the extension of the particular class and the relations
among the various classes. Linnaeus and Buffon, for
example, applied their classifying grids to human diver-
sity(p. 55). In this way, the slippery, unmanageable
complexity of the great mass of menor the madding
crowdcould be organized and disciplined. Human
beings became interchangeable elements on a grid:
In discipline, the elements are
interchangeable, since each is defined by
the place it occupies in a series, and by the
gap that separates it from the others. The
unit is, therefore, neither the territory (unit
of domination), nor the place (unit of
residence), but the rank: the place one
occupies in a classification, the point at
which a line and a column intersect, the
interval in a series of intervals that one may
traverse one after the other. Discipline is an
art of rank, a technique for the
transformation of arrangements. It
individualizes bodies by a location that does
not give them a fixed position, but
distributes them and circulates them in a
Scoppa, Bawazir, and Alawadi (2018) analysed the walkability of 10
superblocksin Abu Dhabi and found that a complex network of the
narrow alleyways, or sikkak, make remarkable contributions to the
walkability of superblocks. In particular, sikkak turn many of the
fragmented networks which characterize Abu Dhabi's superblocks into
highly efficient layouts which resemble dense orthogonal grids(p. 367).
network of relations. (Foucault, 1977, pp.
The interchangeable element was called an individual,
who is neither noble nor common. Prior to this histori-
cal shift, human beings were treated as a mass, as in
warfare where a mass of men functions like a wall or
battering ram. But in the classical age, soldiers were dis-
tributed in a systematic, organized, or machinelike
way. Soldiers started being arranged in ranks and files,
like pieces on a chessboard or cells on a spreadsheet
table. Every body has its assigned position in this spatial
distribution. This is what tactics means. The Greek
taktike means the art of arrangement. Each person
could be given an assignment and held accountable.
Also, when soldiers are assembled in formation for
inspection, one soldier could be called out and
disciplined. The modern classroom adopted the same
disciplinary regime. As Foucault puts it, Discipline
makesindividuals; it is the specific technique of power
that regards individuals both as objects and as instru-
ments of its exercise(1977, p. 170). The individual
must face the legal system, the market economy system,
the education system, and other function systems alone
rather than as an indistinguishable member of a family
or larger mass.
Thus, despite efforts to clearly distinguish the nobility
from the commoner, everyone was placed on the same
grid. Individuals may be moved around to different cells
on the grid, but the cells remain fixed. Thus, political sys-
tems replaced sovereigns, who have lifetime tenure,
with prime ministers or presidents who occupy an office
for a few years before they are replaced by another indi-
vidual. It is the officethe cell on the gridthat is essen-
tial; the individuals who sit in the cells can be moved
around. This means that members of the nobility, who,
like sovereigns and princes, maintained their positions
for life, became mere individuals who could be moved
around on a social grid.
But, of course, the ancien régime was not going to be
carried off without a fight. Thus, as the noble/common
distinction lost currency, a number of distinctions that
already existed gained prominence. These distinctions
included polite/impolite, tasteful/tasteless, graceful/
graceless, cultured/uncouth, and others. As Luhmann
observed, On the operational level, societal differentia-
tion [] demands the constant signaling of distinctions.
[] In aristocratic societies, great value is placed on the
distinctive characteristics of the noble way of life, and
the distinctions are chosen so as always to connote the
negative side, what is commonor uncouth’”(2013a,
p. 8). The term nouveau riche was coined in the late
17th century to denote a person [or class] who has
recently acquired wealth, esp. one who displays this in
an ostentatious or vulgar fashion(OED). In a letter
written in 1802, the AngloIrish author Maria Edge-
worth makes a distinction between the nouveauxriches
and les anciens nobles (Edgeworth & Colvin, 1979).
According to the OED, this was one of the first cases
of an English text featuring the nouveauxriches/les
anciens nobles distinction. In sum, it is not news that
that the old rich often portrayed the rising commoner
as vulgarliterally, common. But the crucial point is
that the hereditary nobility did not merely portray the
commoners as impolite, tasteless, and vulgar; they
portrayed these upstartsas impolite, tasteless, and vul-
gar by nature. In this view, only the hereditary nobility
possessed noble qualities by nature. Nobility flowed
through their veins. The same could not be said for the
rising commoners. I will represent this new distinction
as true nobility/pretended nobility. I will offer evidence
for this claim as my argument proceeds.
When it comes to grid making, however, a fundamen-
tal problem is that functional systemsthe political sys-
tem, the market economy system, the legal system, and
so oncannot be locked into cells on a grid. In a func-
tionally differentiated society, there is no central control
or global steering mechanism. Thus, although urban
planners use grids to address problems such as traffic
flow, and grids and tables are used in all sorts of other
ways for planning, organizational, and disciplinary pur-
poses, autopoietic systems cannot be fixed on a grid.
For autopoietic systems, the only relevant planning is
selfplanning, but even selfplanning must reckon with
an unknowable future. A system can make plans for
what it will do if faced with some event, but that is all.
In other words, planning can only establish the pre-
mises of future behavior, not the behavior itself
(Luhmann, 1995, p. 470). Planning is only relevant
within the broader context of evolution theory. As Knodt
(1995) observes, Luhmann's theory of selfreferential
systems differs from the cybernetic theories of the
1940s1950s in that Luhmann does not focus on system
maintenance and social engineering. In Luhmann's
own words,
All planning is inadequate. It does not
achieve its goals, or at least to the extent
that it would like, and it triggers sideeffects
it did not foresee. This is nothing new. The
real problem of the selfplanning of social
systems is that the planning in a system
that plans itself is observed. Like everything
that happens within a system, planning
can be only one process among others.
(1995, p. 469).
To reiterate, as social systems reduce environmental com-
plexityor narrow the range of possibilities from which
they make selectionsthey increase their own internal
complexity (Luhmann, 2012). There is a danger here,
however. As systems increase their own complexity, they
make themselves vulnerable to environmental factors
that they have excluded or filtered out. For example,
human beings are not consciously aware of all the routine
physiological processes that occur in the body. If we actu-
ally felt everything that was happening beneath our skin,
we would be immediately overwhelmed by sensations.
Clearly, it is very helpful that we cannot feel the routine
digestion of our food, but we also cannot feel the early
stages of cancer or heart disease. Only sensitive diagnostic
instruments can detect these events, and by then it may
be too late for the patient.
This universal predicament is addressed by
Valentinov's (2014) concept of the complexitysustain-
ability tradeoff, the principle that as a system becomes
more complex, it risks its sustainability. Valentinov
highlights two interrelated principles underpinning
Luhmann's understanding of systemenvironment
The first principle, which can be called the
complexity reduction principle,posits that
systems increase their complexity by
becoming increasingly insensitive [i.e., less
sensitive] to the complexity of the
environment. This principle captures the
basic meaning of Luhmann's seemingly
paradoxical dictum that systems increase
complexity by reducing complexity (e.g.,
Luhmann, 2009, p. 121). The second
principle, which can be called the critical
dependence principle,posits that the
increasing complexity of systems is
associated with their growing dependence
on environmental complexity in ways that
make the continuation of their autopoiesis
increasingly unlikely. [] This combination
is, however, problematic because it entails
the increasing risk that systems develop
insensitivity to precisely those
environmental conditions on which they
critically depend. (2014, p. 18)
In this view, the only way for a social system to avoid
selfdestruction is to limit the growth of its own
Consider this example: A university needs to hire a
new faculty member. What is the process? A job
announcement is posted and hundreds of PhDs apply
for the position. How is this mass of applications han-
dled? In an effort to be objective, a grid (or rubric) is
drawn up. Points are assigned to various measurable
criteria, and by tabulating the points the most qualified
candidate should emerge. The decision is supposed to be
determined by the rubric, as the rubric score tells the
committee whom to hire. But the problem is that the
rubric must be made very complex to reduce uncer-
tainty/bias. Thus, the complexity of the rubric increases
in direct proportion to the demand for objectivity. The
only solution is to settle for lessthanperfect objectivity.
This settling for less than perfection is a kind of learn-
ing, and autopoietic (selfproducing and reproducing) sys-
tems can learn. They have the capacity to redefine
themselves, that is, reconfigure the boundary between
the actual and the possible(Valentinov, 2014, p. 19). In
the above example, absolute certainty of selecting the best
candidate is not possibleand this has nothing to do
with the unknown future job performance of the candi-
date. The grid simply cannot guarantee the best choice
because there will always be gaps in any grid or new cells
to squeeze into the spreadsheet.
When autopoietic systems draw distinctions, they
make their worlds more predictable. The movement of
pedestrians on New York City sidewalks is far more pre-
dictable than the movement of a solitary walker in a for-
est. A complex system transforms a random,
unpredictable, unknowable environment into something
governed by expectations. Expectations are fulfilled or
disappointed, but there must be expectations. These
expectations may be thought of as structures, or expecta-
tional structures. The environment is completely unstruc-
tured. Nothing outside of an operationally closed system
is predictable by the system. Thus, one key difference
between a system and its environment is that systemic
events are filtered through expectations. Expectations, to
reiterate, may be either fulfilled or disappointed; there is
no third option. Thus, expectations allow systems to sim-
plify reality by reducing all events to only two possibili-
ties. Expectations, in other words, bifurcate everything
into fulfillment or disappointment.
For evidence of the blurring of the noble/common dis-
tinction in the classical age, one can look at the decline
of French salon culture. As Lecoeur (2011, p. 11) writes,
In seventeenthcentury France, aristocratic culture
articulated itself principally through the art of conversa-
tion, leisurely practiced in groups that historians generally
refer to as salons.’”But in the 18th century, salon culture
was confronted by the emergence of functional differenti-
ation. Ward (2006) discusses the breakdown of polite con-
versation, which equates to the breakdown of salon
culture, from late 17thto early 18thcentury France. The
decline of polite conversation among the French aristoc-
racy occurred as functional differentiation was disrupting
inherited noble privilege. Citing Luhmann, Ward refers
to the binary code of polite conversation as pleasure/
Polite conversation was an activity reserved for
the nobility, and the rule was to be agreeable, witty, and
noncontroversial. A word that comes to mind here is
sprezzatura, a word that first appeared in Count Baldasar
Castiglione's 1528 Il Cotegiano,orThe Book of the Courtier.
The 1902 English edition translated and annotated by
Leonard Eckstein Opdycke renders the word as noncha-
lance.The Book of the Courtier is all about noble grace.
Sprezzatura or nonchalance,however, is not grace itself,
but a special quality or source of grace. As Castiglione
(1528/1902) writes,
But having before now often considered
whence this grace springs, laying aside
those men who have it by nature [emphasis
added], I find one universal rule concerning
it, which seems to me worth more in this
matter than any other in all things human
that are done or said: and that is to avoid
affectation to the uttermost and as it were a
very sharp and dangerous rock; and, to use
possibly a new word, to practise in
everything a certain nonchalance,soasto
conceal all art and make whatever one does
or says appear to be without effort and
almost without any thought about it. (p. 35)
Sprezzatura provides the impression of natural grace
where natural grace may be lacking, as shown by
Castiglione's reference to those men who have it by
nature.The courtier must avoid at all cost affectation
because that is a sure sign of pretending. In addition to
affectation, serious or potentially divisive topics are to
be avoided in polite conversation. Sincerity is also not
encouraged; however, sincerity or transparencymight
be employed by someone who wishes to subvert the con-
ventions of salon culture (Ward, 2017). But above all,
one's approach was determined by the shifting context.
One must observe the rhetorical principle of decorum:
Because the circumstances of a conversation are in
flux, wise persons of quality are proteans who adapt to
their surroundings. They are learned with the learned,
pious with the pious, and sad with the sad(Ward,
2003, p. 249).
According to Ward (2006), the art of polite conversa-
tion declined in late17thand early18thcentury France
because of distrust among the nobility, along with the fact
that communications among the nobility became discon-
nected from real political power. Conversational skill
could no longer be counted on to move one closer to
the centre of powerthat is, the royal court and the sov-
ereign; therefore, conversational skill and wit have no
political purpose. Moreover, if the ranks of the noble
were increasing, because noble status could be purchased
or granted as a reward for service to the sovereign (Doyle,
2009), then the nobility would not know whom to trust.
Ward (2006) argues further that an interactional
impasseresults when interlocutors characterize an inter-
action in different, inconsistent ways. For example, if one
participant frames an interaction as a search for truth and
the other frames it as a pleasant diversion, an interac-
tional impasse will likely result.
In this context, polite conversation just produces bore-
dom. According to Ward, The observance of certain
rules, such as the restriction of conversation to indifferent
themes, which is supposed to reduce conflict and produce
pleasure, instead produces boredom. The binary distinc-
tion between pleasure and ennuithe very binary dis-
tinction that constitutes upperclass interaction as a
separate subsystemcollapses, leaving only the latter
(2006, p. 244). Boredom is produced by too much predict-
ability, which means that healthysocial systems must
strike a balance between the extremes of predictability
and unpredictability. This is another case of twinhori-
zons. System operations can forever approach a horizon
but never reach it. At some point, the system must turn
back toward the opposite horizon.
One can safely assume that in the classical age many
members of the hereditary nobility believed that their
way of life would continue for many more generations.
This is because as far as an autopoietic system is con-
cerned, it has no beginning and will have no end; it has
always existed and will always exist. Beginning and end
are on the other side of the twin horizons of past and
future(Luhmann, 1993, p. 36). An autopoietic system
cannot conceive of its own ending because each operation
presupposes a subsequent operation. Nor can it conceive
of its own beginning because every operation depends
Ward refers to pleasure/ennuias a binary code, but it is not a digital
distinction because it does not exclude a third possibility (e.g., pain).
Luhmann (1990, p. 13) describes pleasure/ennui as a difference.”“Plea-
sure/lack of pleasure or pleasure/nonpleasurewould be a digital dis-
tinction. Ennui would then be categorized as one kind of nonpleasure.
Furthermore, I would not call pleasure/pain a digital distinction. See
the Marquis de Sade.
on a previous operation. The beginning and end of an
autopoietic system may be observed from outside the sys-
tem but never from the inside. If an autopoietic system is
to avoid dissolving into its environment, it must ignore
any suspicion that it may not always exist in some form.
Thus, a person might expect to exist forever in spiritual
form, as bones or dust, or in the memories of their loved
ones, but not existing at all is inconceivable.
Autopoietic systems assume that something (an envi-
ronment) exists beyond its horizon, but whatever this
thing is, it can never be reached. Indeed, every system
operates on the assumption that something else is out
theresomething other than itself or some time other
than the present. As Luhmann writes, Inevitably, we
are confronted with a paradox in the search for unity,
that is, with the demand to continue. For observers
are autopoietic systems that can only produce their
operations on the assumption that other operations will
follow. The world is therefore an endless world,ahori-
zonalways holding out the prospect of other possibili-
ties(2013b, p. 50). Not only is the continued
existence of a system not guaranteed, but any system
that comes into existence at all has beaten the odds.
The system did not have to come into being at all,
and in retrospect, it was far more likely that it would
not have emerged. In other words, system formation is
always contingent; it is possible but not necessary.
Yet from the system's perspective, its own existence
seems inevitableas well as endless.
How can one support the claim that as the old noble/
common distinction lost currency it was replaced by a
new distinction between true nobility and pretended
nobility? This and the related claims made above are sup-
portable by primary sources such as treatises and tracts,
letters, novels, and other primary sources. I begin in the
late 17th century.
In 1670, an antiProtestant treatise was published by
John Wilson, M.A., although the text is attributed to Peter
Talbott. The full title is
A treatise of religion and governmemt [sic]
with reflexions upon the cause and cure of
Englands late distempers and present
dangers. The argument whether Protestancy
is less dangerous to the soul, or more
advantagious to the state, then the Roman
Catholick religion? The conclusion that
piety and policy are mistaken in promoting
Protestancy, and persecuting Popery by
penal and sanguinary statuts.
In this text, Wilson (1670) observes that the founders of
ProtestantismLuther, Calvin, and Cranmerlacked
nobility because they could not prove noble descent. I
present the text below as it was reproduced from the orig-
inal document. The essential parts are quite readable:
It is a remarkable thing that never any
ancient Heretick, or modern Reformer of
the Catholick doctrin, could name an
inmmedia Pre[]cessor, much less any
Church, from which he received his
Religion· and reformed interpretation of
Scrip|ture. Opti[]s that ancient Father
( . 2. contra arme .) says, That Donatus
was a son without a Father a Successor
without a Predecessor, filius sine Patre,
sequens sine Anteceden e: the same we
may say of Luther, Calvin Cranmer &c.
And seing ther must be a Succession of
faith as well as of me , and that as one
who can not prove his Father or family to
be noble by the testimonies and tradition
of others, can not pretend to nobility of
descent, or to right of inheritance, so can
not Luther, Calvin or Cranmer and their
followers, pretend to antiquity of faith, or
to be of the Catholick family of Christ
without a legal testimony and tradition of
their spiritual descent, which tradition or
testimony they confess to be wanting.
(Early English Books Online)
For the purposes of my argument, the most important
words are can not prove his Father or family to be noble
by the testimonies and tradition of others, can not pre-
tend to nobility of descent. The word pretend,in vari-
ous forms, appears 98 times in Wilson's text of over
42,000 words.
The usage of pretendedin adjective formthat is,
Of a title or designation: not valid, spurious; (of a person
or thing bearing such a title or designation) spuriously
entitled; socalled, selfstyled(OED)is now rare but
was common in the classical age. As evidence, one can
cite Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in
France (1790). Holston (2007) observes that in this book,
Eva M. Knodt (1995), in the Forward to the English translation of
Luhmann's Social Systems, observes that systems theory starts from
the assumption that communication is contingentthat is, neither
impossible nor necessaryand subsequently seeks to identify the condi-
tions under which the improbable becomes probable(xxviii).
Burke rebukes the French revolutionaries'
treatment of the French nobility, arguing
that the nobility's punishment was
incommensurate with their supposed
mistreatment of the French populace. While
Burke admits that there is, on rare occasion,
the need to hold accountable a cruel and
unjust nobility, he argues that the instance
in question fell well short of this type of
situation. Still, Burke's hypothetical is
instructive, for he notes that when such
occasions do arise, The statues of Equity
and Mercy might be veiled for a moment.
The tenderest minds, confounded with the
dreadful exigency in which morality
submits to the suspension of its own rules
in favor of its own principles, might turn
aside whilst fraud and violence were
accomplishing the destruction of a
pretended nobility.(p. 248)
Burke also speaks of pretended titles,”“pretended phi-
losophers,”“pretended citizens,and pretended liberty
(Burke, Turner, & McMahon, 2003). But there is no need
to pile up references. My point is that the pretended
nobilitywas once a topic of discussion.
I now discuss the most acclaimed biography in the
English language, James Boswell's The Life of Samuel
Johnson, LLD (1791), which modern editions often
shorten to The Life of Johnson. Johnson's views on social
stratification were complex. In the following passage
from The Life of Johnson, Boswell discusses Johnson's
view of social rank:
He again insisted on the duty of maintaining
subordination of rank. Sir, I would no more
deprive a nobleman of his respect, than of his
money. I consider myself as acting a part of
the great system of society, and I do to
others as I would expect them to do to me.
I would behave to a nobleman as I should
expect he would behave to me, were I a
nobleman and he Sam. Johnson. Sir, there
is one Mrs. Macaulay in this town, a great
republican. One day when I was at her
house, I put on a very grave countenance,
and said to her, Madam, I am now become
a convert to your way of thinking. I am
convinced that all mankind are upon an
equal footing; and to give you
unquestionable proof, Madam, that I am in
earnest, here is a very sensible, civil, well
behaved fellow citizen, your footman; I
desire that he may be allowed to sit down
and dine with us. I thus shewed her the
absurdity of the leveling doctrine. She has
never liked me since. Sir, your levellers wish
to level DOWN as far as themselves; but
they cannot bear levelling UP to themselves.
They would all have some people under
them; why not then have some people above
them?I mentioned a certain authour who
disgusted me by his forwardness, and by
showing no deference to noblemen into
whose company he was admitted.
JOHNSON. Suppose a shoemaker should
claim an equality with him, as he does with
a Lord: how he would stare! Why, sir, do
you stare? (says the shoemaker); I do great
service to society. 'Tis true, I am paid for
doing it; but so are you, sir; and I am sorry
to say it, better paid than I am, for doing
something not so necessary. For mankind
could do better without your books than
without my shoes. Thus, Sir, there would be
a perpetual struggle for precedence, were
there no fixed invariable rules for the
distinction of rank, which creates no
jealousy, as it is allowed to be accidental.
(Boswell & Chapman, 1970, p. 31617)
In these instances, Johnson defended social stratifica-
tion. But if this were the whole story Johnson would
not hold much interest for modern readers. The fascina-
tion arises from the conflicts and tensions in Johnson's
character. For instance, Johnson famously addressed a
nobleman as an equal when he rejected, in brilliant
prose, Lord Chesterfield's belated praise for his
Dictionary of the English Language. Here is the letter,
which is reproduced in full as a model of 18thcentury
English prose:
February 7, 1755.
MY LORD, I have been lately informed, by
the proprietor of The World, that two
papers, in which my Dictionary is
recommended to the publick, were written
by your Lordship. To be so distinguished, is
an honour, which, being very little
accustomed to favours from the great, I
know not well how to receive, or in what
terms to acknowledge.
When, upon some slight encouragement, I
first visited your Lordship, I was
overpowered, like the rest of mankind, by the
enchantment of your address; and could not
forbear to wish that I might boast myself Le
vainqueur du vainqueur de la terre;that I
might obtain that regard for which I saw
the world contending; but I found my
attendance so little encouraged, that neither
pride nor modesty would suffer me to
continue it. When I had once addressed
your Lordship in publick, I had exhausted
all the art of pleasing which a retired and
uncourtly scholar can possess. I had done
all that I could; and no man is well pleased
to have his all neglected, be it ever so little.
Seven years, my Lord, have now past, since I
waited in your outward rooms, or was
repulsed from your door; during which time
I have been pushing on my work through
difficulties, of which it is useless to
complain, and have brought it, at last, to
the verge of publication, without one act of
assistance, one word of encouragement, or
one smile of favour. Such treatment I did
not expect, for I never had a Patron before.
The shepherd in Virgil grew at last
acquainted with Love, and found him a
native of the rocks.
Is not a Patron, my Lord, one who looks with
unconcern on a man struggling for life in the
water, and, when he has reached ground,
encumbers him with help? The notice
which you have been pleased to take of my
labours, had it been early, had been kind;
but it has been delayed till I am indifferent,
and cannot enjoy it; till I am solitary, and
cannot impart it; till I am known, and do
not want it. I hope it is no very cynical
asperity not to confess obligations where no
benefit has been received, or to be unwilling
that the Publick should consider me as
owing that to a Patron, which Providence
has enabled me to do for myself.
Having carried on my work thus far with so
little obligation to any favourer of learning,
I shall not be disappointed though I should
conclude it, if less be possible, with less; for
I have been long wakened from that dream
of hope, in which I once boasted myself
with so much exultation, my Lord, your
Lordship's most humble, most obedient
SAM JOHNSON. (Boswell & Chapman,
1970, pp 184-86)
In this ironylaced letter, Johnson demonstrates decorum
and deference to Lord Chesterfield while at the same time
employing a masterful prose style to performatively
declare himself the nobleman's equal. Consider the line
Such treatment I did not expect for I never had a Patron
before.Thus, Johnson's ambivalence regarding the sys-
tem of inherited social rank is evident. This ambivalence
would be expected in an era of rapid social change. Sam-
uel Johnson rose from complete obscurity to great fame
by means of his pen, and he was not in a position to
openly subvert the established social order. Yet he never
ignored the hypocrisy and injustices that came along with
this order.
I move on now to Jane Austen's work. In Austen's
Sense and Sensibility (Austen, 1811), the Dashwood fam-
ily belongs not to the nobility but the landed gentry, yet
Marianne, the middle sister, always thinks in terms of
noble taste. Marianne, speaking to her mother about a
possible husband for her older sister, Elinor, says to her
Edward is very amiable, and I love him
tenderly. But yethe is not the kind of
young manthere is something wanting
his figure is not striking; it has none of that
grace which I should expect in the man
who could seriously attach my sister. His
eyes want all that spirit, that fire, which at
once announce virtue and intelligence. And
besides all this, I am afraid, Mama, he has
no real taste. Music seems scarcely to attract
him, and though he admires Elinor's
drawings very much, it is not the
admiration of a person who can understand
their worth. It is evident, in spite of his
frequent attention to her while she draws,
that in fact he knows nothing of the matter.
He admires as a lover, not as a connoisseur.
To satisfy me, those characters must be
united. I could not be happy with a man
whose taste did not in every point coincide
with my own. He must enter into all my
feelings; the same books, the same music
must charm us both. Oh! mama, how
spiritless, how tame was Edward's manner
in reading to us last night! I felt for my
sister most severely. Yet she bore it with so
much composure, she seemed scarcely to
notice it. I could hardly keep my seat. To
hear those beautiful lines which have
frequently almost driven me wild,
pronounced with such impenetrable
calmness, such dreadful indifference!
[The other replies,] He would certainly have
done more justice to simple and elegant
prose. I thought so at the time; but you
WOULD give him Cowper.
Nay, Mama, if he is not to be animated by
Cowper!but we must allow for difference
of taste. Elinor has not my feelings, and
therefore she may overlook it, and be happy
with him. But it would have broke MY
heart, had I loved him, to hear him read
with so little sensibility. Mama, the more I
know of the world, the more am I
convinced that I shall never see a man
whom I can really love. I require so much!
He must have all Edward's virtues, and his
person and manners must ornament his
goodness with every possible charm.
In Marianne's mind, Edward's good family name and
good sense are not enough. Much of the novel's humor
derives from the fact that Marianne is not a member of
the nobility but she puts great stock in noble taste.
Marianne understands that a commoner such as herself
is quite capable of good taste. Furthermore, there is no
reason that Edward, who is also not a member of the
hereditary nobility, should not possess good taste.
I now look at another Jane Austen novel, Emma
(Austen, 1815). In this novel, the Woodhouse family
belongs, again, to the landed gentry, and Emma
Woodhouse is highly sensitive to the hierarchical grada-
tions within this social class. For example, she is anxious
about the rising status of the Cole family. In the follow-
ing passage, the narrator invites the reader to share
Emma's perspective:
The Coles had been settled some years in
Highbury, and were very good sort of
people, friendly, liberal and unpretending;
but, on the other hand, they were of low
origin, in trade, and only moderately
genteel. On their first coming into the
country they had lived in proportion to
their income, quietly, keeping little
company, and that little inexpensively; but
the last year or two had brought them a
considerable increase of meansthe house
in town had yielded greater profits, and
fortunes in general had smiled on them.
With their wealth their view increased;
their want of a larger house, their
inclination for more company. They added
to their house, to their number of servants,
to their expenses of every sort; and by this
time were, in fortune and style of living,
second only to the family at Hartfield [the
Woodhouses]The Coles were respectable
in every way, but they ought to be taught
that it was not for them to arrange the
terms on which superior families would
visit them. This lesson, she very much
feared, they would receive only from herself.
The Coles do not invite Emma to their house because
they know she is a snob, so she is left out as the other
families welcome the Coles into their social circle.
Emma's blindness in this regard drives the narrative.
She cannot accept those of low origin”—that is to say,
those not genteel by nature. For Emma, gentility is in
the blood; it is not a mere social designation, which, as
mentioned above, is a distinction traceable back to
The next work is an obscure novel titled Courtly
annals: or, Independence the true nobility (Mathew,
The first volume was published in London in
1814, the year before Emma. The publication years of
the other three volumes are unknown. The author was
Richard Mathew, Esq., of whom I can find no informa-
tion. The frontispiece of the first volume features an illus-
tration of a young woman on her knees clutching a young
man around the waist as he apparently attempts to pull
himself away. The main character is Augustus, Seymour,
earl of Granville. But for my purposes, the content or the
literary merit of this work is less relevant than the title. In
short, the words true nobilitycan only mean that there
must also be a false or pretended nobility.
I now consider a late19thcentury play, Henrik
Ibsen's Hedda Gabler (1890; Ibsen & Fjelde, 1978). This
literary work returns us to the questions of conversa-
tional skill, good taste, wit, and nonchalance prized by
the nobility. In the play Hedda's husband, George
Tesman, lacks these noble qualities. Hedda has no love
for her husband because he is a specialist. George
Tesman is a newly minted PhD starting his career as a
scholar of medieval history, specializing in the domestic
industries of Brabant in the Middle Ages.Hedda com-
plains that his specialty is all he knows how to talk
about. Hes not a generalist in the old European style.
His profession limits him, and he will never beand
does not aspire to bea bon vivant. Here, the complex-
ity/sustainability tradeoff is applicable. George Tesman's
passion for the domestic industries of Brabant in the
The full titled is Courtly annals: or, Independence the true nobility: a
novel:in four volumes. One interesting feature of this very long novel
is that the author dedicates it to himself, stating that no one else is likely
to dedicate a book to him.
Middle Ages has left him oblivious to the desperate sad-
ness of his wife. Here is an exchange between Hedda
and her friend, and wouldbe seducer, Judge Brack:
Hedda: Tesman isa specialist, my dear Judge.
Brack: Undeniable.
Hedda: And specialists are not at all amusing to travel
with. Not in the long run at any rate.
Brack: Not eventhe specialist one happens to love?
Hedda: Faughdo not use that sickening word!
Brack: [Taken aback.] What do you say, Mrs. Hedda?
Hedda: [Half laughing, half irritated.] You should just
try it! To hear of nothing but the history of civ-
ilisation, morning, noon, and night
Brack: Everlastingly.
Hedda: Yes yes yes! And then all this about the domes-
tic industry of the middle ages! That's the
most disgusting part of it!
Hedda goes on to say that she would like a friend with
a fund of conversation on all sorts of lively topics,
to which Brack adds, and not the least bit of a
Tesman is a product of functional differentiation. He is
a scholar working within the science system. And
because of ongoing differentiation within the science sys-
tem, any successful scholar must specialize; otherwise, s/
he is just a dilettante. In premodern Europe, the amateur
or gentleman scholarcould be respected. A person of
wide learning who reads for pleasure, not as a profes-
sional requirement, would be much sought after in gen-
teel society, which is the world Hedda Gabbler is
accustomed to and wants to return to. When she cannot
find itand other characters' desires start closing in on
hershe shoots herself.
Viewing this play through the filter of the complex-
itysustainability tradeoff, one might say that George
Tesman loses his wife because, due to his singleminded
devotion to his research, he loses sight of Hedda's great
despair. However, this reading implies that Tesman crit-
ically depends on Hedda, when in fact there is no evi-
dence in the play that he actually critically depends on
her at all. When not doing research, he spends time
with his aunt. On the other hand, Hedda critically
depends on stimulating conversation and an interesting
life, which she gave up when she married Tesman.
The conclusion then becomes that Hedda has inadver-
tently specialized as a dull professor's wife; conse-
quently, she loses what she critically depends on and
finally commits suicideliteral selfdestruction. The sec-
ond interpretation seems more persuasive, as well as
interesting within the context of feminist literary
I conclude my discussion of literary works with an
extended analysis of an early 20thcentury play, Anton
Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard (Chekhov, 2015). This
play, first performed in Moscow in 1904, concerns an aris-
tocratic Russian widow and her family. Madame Liubov
Andryeevna Ranevskaya, the owner of a large estate,
has been abroad for 5 years, and she returns to find that
her estate may have to be put up for auction to pay the
mortgage. Ermolai Alexeyevitch Lopakhin, a merchant
and son of a former serf, advises her to lease some of
the family's estate, including their beloved cherry
orchard, so that it can be divided up into summer villas
for the new rich. Alhough far from ideal, this plan would
allow the family to keep the house. Of course, Liubov
Andryeevna will not consider this option, and she and
her ridiculous brother just propose borrowing more
money and praying to God for help. In the end, the estate
is purchased by Lopakhin and the family departs to the
sound of the cherry orchard being cut down.
In Act 1, Lopakhin says,
Up to just recently there were only gentry
and peasants living in the country, but now
there are all these summer residents. All the
towns, even quite small ones, are
surrounded with villas. And probably in the
course of the next twenty years or so, these
people will multiply tremendously. At
present they merely drink tea on the
verandah, but they might start cultivating
their plots of land, and then your cherry
orchard would be gay with life and wealth
and luxury
Leonid Andreyevitch Gayev, Liubov Andryeevna's
brother, cuts off Lopakhin with
What nonsense!
Before going off to bed, the following exchange occurs
between Lopakhin, Varia (Madame Liubov's adult
adopted daughter), and Gayev:
LOPAKHIN: If you think over this question of the
country villas and come to a decision,
let me know, and I'll get you a loan of
fifty thousand or more. Think it over
VARIA [crossly]: Will you ever go away?
LOPAKHIN: I'm going, I'm going. [Goes out.]
GAYEV: What a boor! I beg your pardon
Varia's going to marry him, he's
Varia's precious fiancée.
In Act 2, the audience observes the following exchange:
LOPAKHIN: I keep telling you. Every day
I tell you the same thing.
You must lease the cherry
orchard and the land for
villas, and you must do it
now, as soon as possible.
The auction is going to be
held almost at once. Please
do try to understand! Once
you definitely decide to
have the villas, you'll be
able to borrow as much
money as you like, and then
you'll be out of the wood.
LIUBOV ANDRYEEVNA: Villas and summer visitors!
Forgive me, but it's so
GAYEV: I absolutely agree with you.
Lopakhin's sin, the reason he is considered vulgar, is
that he speaks of something seriousin other words, he
violates the code of polite conversation, as discussed by
Ward (2006, 2017). Think it over seriously,Lopakhin
says. For Gayev and Liubov Andryeevna, conversation is
supposed to be agreeable and trivial; it is not supposed
to include serious or uncomfortable topics. One employs
solicitors, like Liubov Andryeevna's late husband, to deal
with unpleasant issues such as unpaid mortgages. Thus,
far from facilitating further conversation, Lopakhin's
remarks stop the conversation in its tracks.
It is significant that Gayev does not directly address
Lopakhin. When Gayev speaks to someone, he forms a
closed social system that excludes the vulgarbusiness-
man. Consequently, what Lopakhin says does not count
as relevant information in this closed system; his words
register as mere noise.It is almost as if Lopakhin is
not speaking Russian or any other language the noble
family understands. Of course, Lopakhin's words do
have meaning for his listeners, but they lack any infor-
mation value. Meaning and information are quite differ-
ent because an utterance can be understood as
meaningful yet lack information value. As discussed
previously, words that lack information value do not
contribute to communication. Inevitably, many mem-
bers of the Russian nobility could not process as infor-
mation what was happening around them. All they
had left was nostalgia and talk of the vulgarity of the
upstarts. This was a case of being stuck with an old,
outmoded moral semantics.
After Lopakhin has exited the stage, Gayev states that
their rich countess aunt is unlikely to loan them money
because Liubov Andryeevna married a solicitor rather
than a nobleman, and Gayev associates this marriage
with loose morals. In the following bit of dialogue, Varia,
who is Liubov's 24yearold adopted daughter, turns to
divine help, and Gayev talks about easygoing morality.
VARIA [weeping]: If only God would help us.
GAYEV: Do stop blubbering! The Countess
is very rich, but she does not like
usFirst, because my sister married
a solicitor, and not a nobleman
She married a man who wasn't of
noble birthand then you cannot
say her behaviour's been exactly vir-
tuous. She's a good, kind, lovable
person, and I'm very fond of her,
but whatever extenuating circum-
stances you may think of, you must
admit that she's a bit easygoing
morally. You can sense it in every
The words She's a good, kind, lovable person, and I'm
very fond of her, but…” are very much like a statement
from Emma quoted previously: The Coles had been set-
tled some years in Highbury, and were a very good sort of
people, friendly, liberal and unpretending; but, on the
other hand…” The speakers are careful to demonstrate
their generous, noble spirit, while also highlighting the
faults of their adversaries. Of course, the main force that
is disrupting the life of the nobility in the Chekhov play
is not easygoing morality, bad taste, or vulgarity, but
the shift from stratification to functional differentiation.
But after this lengthy analysis, one might still ask how
the nobility could ignore the signs of their impending
doom. Here, the complexitysustainability tradeoff prin-
ciple is applicable. Autopoietic systems have limited sen-
sitivity to their environments. The system/environment
difference is always precarious; that is to say, systems
are always in danger of dissolving into their undifferenti-
ated environments. Autopoietic systems, therefore, face a
difficult balancing act. On the one hand, they must limit
their sensitivity to environmental stimuli. Any system, if
it is to remain a system, must specialize. It must filter
environmental events, treating only a very limited range
of environmental facts as relevant. Otherwise, any system
would be immediately overwhelmed. On the other hand,
this necessary filtering mechanism leaves systems vulner-
able to what they ignore or cannot know.
In The Cherry Orchard, Gayev, as a representative of
the hereditary nobility, remains insensitive to certain
realitiesmost importantly, his own family's debt and
the required mortgage paymentin order to preserve
his identity as a nobleman. He does this (if one pretends
for a moment that he is a real person) out of unconscious
habit; that is to say, he is not thinking I must do this to
maintain my social position.He is aware that unpleasant
events are happening, but he cannot process them while
also maintaining his social identity. Gayev might even
be described as simpleminded; however, in order to
maintain his social identity, he must simplify or reduce
the complexity of his environmentthat is, shut a great
deal out or not take it seriously; the only other option
would be to change and become a different person. In
the end, the estate and the beloved cherry orchard are
lost, along with the family's social status.
In sum, this paper seeks to contribute to the understand-
ing of social change by combining social theory with liter-
ary scholarship. I have drawn on social systems theory as
articulated by Luhmann and others to argue that social
stratification was displaced by functional differentiation
in northwestern Europe after about 1760. Of course, social
stratification, as well as centralization and segmentation,
still exists, but in cases of conflict, functional differentia-
tion overrules these older forms of social differentiation
(Roth et al., 2017). As stratification was overruled by func-
tional differentiation, the distinction between nobility and
commoner lost currency. Further, I have referenced
Foucault's work on disciplinary regimes to argue that as
functional differentiation emerged, the modern individ-
ualas the irreducible and interchangeable unit of soci-
etywas formed and placed on a social grid. The nobles
and commoners were placed on the same grid. But to
maintain some sense of difference, the hereditary nobility
characterized the commoners, who could now purchase
expensive homes, works of art, and other traditional
markers of nobility (see Berg, 2005), as lacking natural
noble qualities. In this view, the upwardly mobile com-
moner could be no more than a pretender. Thus, signs of
rising social status are framed as ostentatious, distasteful,
vulgar, pretentious displays. The true nobility/pretended
nobility distinction, which was also a semantic innova-
tion, allowed the nobility to continue for a time to view
themselves as differentin other words, to avoid falling
into an undifferentiated environment. Semantic innova-
tions, however, accompany structural changes. As such,
they may help autopoietic systems adapt to structural
changes, but they cannot undo or reverse these changes.
Autopoietic social systems expect to exist forever; they
cannot imagine a world that does not include themselves.
Thus, the system encounters a paradox: Nothing exists for
an autopoietic system other than what it can observe;
thus, for a world to exist independent of the observing sys-
tem, the system would have to be present to observe it.
Unfortunately, at least for the nobility, when the noble/
common distinction finally collapsed, the nobility was
not present to witness the event.
The complexitysustainability tradeoff principle helps
to explain why members of the hereditary nobility might
have ignored or denied seemingly clear evidence of a
threat to their privileged social position. Considered as a
selfreferential system, the nobility had no choice but to
reduce environmental complexity. Social systems increase
their own complexity by reducing environmental com-
plexity. But the more complex a social system becomes,
the more oblivious it becomes of its environment.
Consequently, systems make themselves vulnerable to
unknown environmental factors and risk losing resources
that they critically depend on.
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Modernization and the noble/common distinction:
Reading modern literature through Luhmannian
and Foucauldian lenses. Syst Res Behav Sci.
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