On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Everyday Polycontexturality in Times of Digital Mediatization

Gunter Weidenhaus, Jörg Stollmann



The increasing polycontexturality of communicative action in digital and especially in social media fundamentally changes the ways in which individuals communicate. They already anticipate different interpretations of their communicative offerings and adapt to them self-reflectively: polycontexturality is perceived either as a chance to address different contexts simultaneously or as an imposition, because non-desirable interpretations are more difficult to prevent or contain on social media. Thus, we conclude that, with digitalization, polycontexturalization has become so comprehensively formative in today’s societies that it pre-structures action. We demonstrate this phenomenon with the use of the two cases of online crowd-funding in Kenia and off- and online gay cruising in South Korea.

1. What does polycontexturality mean? From formal logic to auto-poetic systems towards material contextures

Polycontexturality is always based on the realization that there is more than one true description of an empirical entity. We want to propose a short genealogy of the use and performance of polycontexturality in order to provide an analytical frame for two cases we want to discuss.

The philosophers and logicians Rudolf Kaehr (1979) and Gotthard Günther (1959) developed the theory of polycontextural logic, which provides a formal language that is able to describe self-referential systems. Cartesian logic only allowed the description of systems in which it is possible to separate the object of observation from the observer. Otherwise, following Descartes’s logic, the observation produces circular statements that cannot be evaluated and thus have no meaning. One example is the sentence pronounced by the Cretan philosopher Epidemes, who said: “All Cretans are liars.” This sentence is self-referential because Epidemes himself was a Cretan. If he was right, he must have been a liar and the statement must, therefore, be wrong – and the other way around. The statement is contradictory from a perspective in which the observer is also the object of observation. This kind of problem occurs when we try to describe self-referential systems in the language of Cartesian logic. Thus, the natural sciences, but also the philosophy of language of the young Wittgenstein, insisted for a long time that self-referential statements are not allowed in science, because they undermine the separation of object and observer.

With the advent of the theory of quantum-mechanics, this separation no longer works for the natural sciences. What happens on the quantum-level depends exactly on whether it is being observed or not. Here, the observer is part of the phenomenon observed, and another logic is required. In the social sciences, we have got used to dealing with self-referential systems. It is impossible to observe society from outside of society. In order to deal with self-referential statements, we developed methods like the “hermeneutic circle” or the “art of dialectic thinking”. On the one hand, these methods can be described by meaningful sentences in Indo-European languages and have proven successful approaches. On the other hand, they cannot be formalized within Descartes’s logic system, because they produce contradictions: Testing an interpretation of a text by comparing this interpretation with the same text (i.e. the hermeneutic circle) leads to a circular statement and, following Descartes (which we do for the beauty of this argument), doesn’t mean anything.

To avoid this logical short-circuit, the theory of polycontextural logic developed by Kaehr and Günther offers a formal language that distributes different aspects of the description of self-referential systems to different logic-places that do not need to be integrated into one context. The interpretation of a text to generate a hypothesis about its meaning works in another contexture than the comparison of the hypothesis with the text in order to check if it is appropriate to the text. The meaning of the text as a whole can only be described by referring to two different contextures – or perspectival standpoints – that are not connected by logic itself. This formal logic allows the description of self-referential systems without producing contradictions or circular statements. Polycontextural logic tackles the task of analyzing and interpreting an immanent subjectivity within the framework of a formal language. This means that the interpreter becomes part of the world that is being interpreted. Within classical logic systems (from Plato and Aristoteles to Descartes), there was no place for the subjectivity of the observer in the world due to the sharp differentiation between observation and observer (between object and subject). Therefore, Günther (1979) argues that the origin of subjectivity (often called “the soul”) was relocated from the world (immanent) to the transcendent sphere of God’s kingdom.

Niklas Luhmann (1984) builds upon this concept of polycontexturality to underline that all social systems and society itself are self-referential (which means nearly the same as “auto-poetic”) systems. Therefore, society can only be described in polycontextural ways. Different aspects must be described within their own contextures, and it is not possible to integrate these descriptions logically without producing contradictions. Within functionally differentiated societies, these contextures multiply because different social subsystems (e.g. law or politics) always process an entity only within their own logic (e.g. with the help of the codes legal/illegal [law] or power/powerlessness [politics]).

According to Luhmann, polycontexturalization takes place whenever an observer becomes aware that the object of his observation appears to another observer as something else. In principle, this phenomenon has always existed because societies are self-referential systems. For example, in cross-cultural encounters it quickly becomes clear that fatherhood can mean something quite different in different cultural contexts. However, polycontexturality is increasing in modern societies due to functional differentiation.

Uwe Schimank (in this issue) extends the argument of increasing polycontexturality in modernity to include the rise of intercultural encounters and the increasingly entangled dimensions of social inequality (e.g., ethnicity and gender). Both developments make it more likely that an object of observation will appear to different observers as something else. Schimank thus moves away from a purely systems-theoretical perspective and can also plausibilize increasing polycontexturalization in terms of action theory. Hubert Knoblauch and Martina Löw (2021; cf. also Knoblauch in this issue) suggest another approach to conceptualizing polycontexturalization in order to make it fruitful for a diagnosis of the present. According to them, polycontexturalization takes place when a communicative action is interpreted in a situation characterized by different (overlapping) contexts with different meanings.

We read this conceptualization, along several dimensions, as an extension of Luhmann’s and Schimank’s concepts:

(a) “Polycontextural” can now also be used to describe (communicative) actions, not only linguistic communication. This entails an extension to include bodily practices.

(b) Such bodily, communicative actions are not only interpreted meaningfully by subjects or within systems, but are fed into different material arrangements (contextures) and processed there. These contextures are always also physically spatially realized and therefore also require spatial analysis.

(c) The current increase of references of a communicative action, i.e. increasing polycontexturality, can be additionally explained by intensifying processes of mediatization – on the one hand, because knowledge of other interpretations has become available to a much greater extent through the media; on the other hand, because communicative actions can be fed into a plethora of different contexts simultaneously with the help of digital media in particular. By means of digital media, a communicative action can be spread simultaneously into different social subsystems, different cultures and different social status groups.

In the following, we would like to discuss two empirical examples to examine how increasing polycontexturalization poses a challenge to the way subjects lead their lives, because it leads to a linkage of different (spatial) contexts. These linkages can be experienced both as impositions as well as opportunity structures. The aim is to show that polycontexturalization should be understood as a central element of contemporary social theory. In doing so, we focus on phenomena of first-order polycontexturalization in which communicative actors are themselves aware of the polycontexturality of their actions (thus it is not only recognized by second-order observers).

2. The empirical relevance of self-reflexive polycontexturalization

In order to structure the field of polycontexturalization, we offer a simple matrix consisting of two dimensions: On the one hand, we differentiate between polycontexturality as a first or second order construct (Schütz, 1962). If it is already expected that a communicative action will be interpreted and processed differently in different contexts, this is a first order construct or self-reflexive polycontexturalization. If, on the other hand, the action is initially intended unambiguously, but is interpreted differently in different contexts without the knowledge of the acting person, polycontexturalization can only be stated on the level of a second-order construct.

Moreover, a distinction can be made between desirable and non-desirable polycontexturalization – independently of whether different interpretations are already expected to occur or not (first or second order constructs). Thus, it is quite conceivable that an author would write a text in order to express a certain meaning (monocontextural from a first order perspective). Nevertheless, different interpretations could emerge from his*her text (polycontextural from a second order perspective), which could be perceived as enriching and desirable in principle, even without the author being aware of or expecting these interpretations. Accordingly, the writer Heiner Müller fundamentally rejected any authority over the interpretation of his own texts and expressed this state with the help of the following simple linguistic expression: “The text is smarter than its author” (1992, translation Weidenhaus).

Polycontexturalization First order construct / self-reflective Second order construct
Desirable I send different messages to different contexts with one communicative action. E.g. crowdfunding in Kenya (see below). I accidently send one message which has different meanings in different contexts, but I have no problem with this. E.g. my book finds unexpected interpretations that I don’t need to know.
Non-Desirable / Imposition I know that my communicative action will find different interpretations, but at least one of them I don’t like. E.g. representation of gay identity in social media (see below). My communicative action accidently finds different interpretations, but I want to send out only one meaning.

As soon as someone learns about unexpected interpretations of his*her communicative actions, polycontexturalization turns from a second order to a first order (self-reflexive) construct. In the following, we will only analyze polycontexturalization as a first order, respectively self-reflexive phenomenon that can be either desirable or perceived as an imposition.

2.1 Polycontexturality as desirable first order construct

In the project „Biographies of the Middle Classes: Spatial Experience and Meaning in the Life Course Narrative”, we conducted biographical interviews and ethnographic field-work in Nairobi (Kenya) and Berlin (Germany). One of the main differences between these middle classes, which has an enormous impact on life courses, is the solidarity system (cf. Weidenhaus & Korte, 2021). While the middle classes in Germany emerged in connection with the establishment of the welfare state at the end of the 19th century, a large part of the Kenyan middle classes has established itself in the last two decades without welfare state protection. In Nairobi, family, church community and ethnicity play a crucial role in social security. Resources are often distributed in the form of a social practice called “harambee” (everyone pulls together) (cf. Weidenhaus & Mock, 2021). This practice can involve collective action by all for all (e.g., the joint construction of a school) as well as the collective support of individuals who, for example, raise money for further education or for weddings and funerals. In the course of digital mediatization, the practice of harambee has become widespread in recent years and has taken on new forms. Nearly everyone in the Kenyan middle class has launched a fundraising appeal at least once. Usually, digital platforms that function like crowdfunding websites in Europe are used for this purpose. With the help of these platforms, the different solidarity systems mentioned above (family, ethnic group, religious community) can be reached simultaneously. It is expected that the appeal for donations, for example, will be read differently by members of the church congregation (or, thanks to featured videos, will also be seen and heard differently) than by family members. While the church congregation tends to place more value on religious denomination when supporting a wedding, it is often important to the family that tribal traditions are observed, such as a younger sister not marrying before an older one.

The communicative action of the harambee has thus become polycontextural. Therefore, the communicative action must be simultaneously open enough not to exclude anyone of the potential addressees and concrete enough so as to resonate with different social circles. Certain aspects are highlighted, while others have to be concealed or paraphrased. For example, money is collected for a Christian wedding, and, at the same time, it is communicated that this wedding also corresponds to certain tribal traditions, which may be very important to the family. This art of polycontextural fundraising can be observed on the relevant web platforms. The polycontexturality of communicative actions can thereby be used specifically to address as many different social circles as possible at the same time and to motivate them to support the cause. These different contexts are connected with different infrastructural systems like a family’s farm, where subsistence farming is possible, or the parish. So the contexts are also material contextures that are affiliated with constitutions of space.

Knowledge of polycontexturality can thus be used to provoke multiple, different but altogether intended consequences of one’s own communicative actions.

2.2 Polycontexturality as non-desirable first order construct

However, the knowledge of the polycontexturality of one’s own communicative actions can also be a burden. This happens when the action is intended with exactly one meaning (monocontextural) but is interpreted differently against the will of the acting subject and thus causes unwanted reactions. We would like to give an example of such a situation as well:

Dating culture in South-Korea requires a set of socio-spatial skills. Young Koreans, who predominantly live with their parents and only move out when marrying their partners, often date in secret in order to get to know each other or simply to experiment. Accordingly, places to meet within the city are chosen far away from either person’s neighborhood, work place and the hangout spots of friends and colleagues. Special hotels offer discrete services. This applies even more for LGBTQ Koreans (McGuire, 2016, 2018). Same-sex relationships are legal but scorned by a majority of conservative Protestants and their respective political parties, which are currently fighting activist initiatives over gay marriage and are, more importantly, preventing the adoption of workplace anti-discrimination laws. Thus, keeping encounters and relationships secret from family, friends and colleagues is still an imperative for the majority of LGBTQ Koreans to the extent that the performance of different identities is culturally normalized. These identities are similarly bound to a network of spaces and infrastructures. One important infrastructure, until recently, have been gay saunas, located discretely in less popular alleyways throughout the city. They are preferred to gay bars and clubs, – hang-out places of a more “out” LGBTQ community – because of their higher degree of anonymity. This also applies to the interior, which, in contrast to gay saunas outside Korea, is barely lit or literally pitch-black dark (McGuire, 2016, p. 91). The possibility to perform queerness without being seen even by an intimate partner became established as a practice, but it is now being challenged by both the saunas themselves coming under threat due to gentrification and rising rents and the increasing popularity of online dating apps and internet cruising tied to LGBTQ activism (McGuire, 2016, p. 96). Most Korean gay men prefer non-Korean geospatial applications and websites to circumvent the registration requirements of the Korean government for fear of becoming visible (at least to government officials). Yet, their interwoven online and offline selves, their visual representations and geolocative functions are generating anxiety to a far larger extent than the merely physical encounters in gay saunas or clubs. The physical spaces enabled users to separate their different lives not only spatially but also temporally (as in visiting these spaces on specific days), while the applications interfere in the men’s daily hetero-normative or family life. More important to our present discussion is the polycontextural self-reflection that McGuire provides as an example from his field studies. “For Korean men, Grindr and Jack’d were unsecured and open networks, something explained through an urban legend I heard often. A geeky teenage girl, sometimes described using the Japanese word otaku, discovered Jack’d and downloaded it to her phone. She set herself up an account, but did not upload a picture. Enamoured with the ‘pretty boys’ (kkonminam) online, she took screenshots of users and uploaded them to a viral blog, commenting on their appearances. The consequences were different with each retelling, but the result was that some of the featured men were discovered. One version, told to me by a lawyer, Haesong, was that one man lost his prestigious job in an international conglomerate (jaebeol) because his colleagues had found him online.” (McGuire, 2016, p. 105f.) While using the physical space of the sauna, users were concerned about its location within the city and the visibility of the self. The apps are extending the spatiality of the threat of exposure beyond the neighborhood or workplace, even beyond the city or national borders (in this case the otaku girl may have been living in Japan). The truth of the story is less relevant than its proliferation among interviewees, which indicates an awareness of their actions as being read, conceived of and processed in contexts they did not only dislike, but that were potentially threatening their existence.

In the case of self-reflexive, undesirable polycontexturalization, unease arises regarding the uncontrollability of the interpretations and consequences of one’s own communicative actions.

3. Conclusion

The concept of polycontexturalization seems highly relevant for a contemporary social theory. The term, which was initially used in the context of systems theory, can, in a first step, be turned towards action theory (cf. Schimank in this issue) and extended by a physical and spatial dimension (cf. also Knoblauch in this issue). The current diagnostic finding concerning an increasing polycontexturalization (communicative acts are more and more often interpreted differently) is thus not only based on functional differentiation (social subsystems each interpret communicative actions with their own code), more complex dimensions of inequality (multiplication of perspectives through increasingly differentiated life situations) and polyculturalization (mobility and mediatization have made more and more different cultural interpretations available at the same time), but also on digital mediatization (a communicative act has become communicatively accessible to more and more different interpreters).

Our examples show that communicative acts on web platforms in particular entail a plethora of different interpretations and thus increasingly contribute to polycontexturalization. The actors themselves are well aware of this development and have to consider different reactions. In doing so, they can both harness polycontexturalization for their own purposes and experience it as an imposition.

Garros, Arthur [arthurgarros] (2021, Apri 2nd) arthurgarros on Instagram

Figure 1 Garros, Arthur [arthurgarros] (2021, April 2nd)

Overall, however, it can be argued that it is becoming increasingly difficult for agents to control the interpretations of their actions, even if they engage with it professionally, like Arthur Garros states in his self-ironic Instagram post (Figure 1, Garros 2021). While the post states in writing “Me watching my story for the 145th time to see it from ✨everyone’s perspective✨“, Garros lip-syncs a soundbite (presumably the original sound features social media legend Kim Kardashian): “It’s a full-time job. And it’s extremely time-consuming. And it’s not as easy as it may appear to some people.”

In the future, interpretations will probably continue to multiply because thousands of self-learning algorithms will offer interpretations of communicative actions, which, by the way, will not be comprehensible to anyone (not even the programmers), although they have excellent predictive potential. To end with a dystopian final note: why exactly is a person with four specific border crossings in the last year, driving a red car, who turned off his cell phone on the night of March 15, classified as a terror suspect by intelligence services, though he is not even known by the program that made this classification? Polycontexturalization will thus reach a new dimension, not only quantitatively but also qualitatively: The act of interpretation and the resulting interpretations will emancipate themselves from being bound to meaning and understanding.


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List of Figures:

Figure 1: Garros, Arthur [arthurgarros] (2021, April 2nd) arthurgarros on Instagram: „Me watching my story for the 145th time to see it from ✨everyone’s perspective✨" [Instagram-Post]. Retrieved from: Instagram. https://www.instagram.com/reel/CNKFDZ2JM0F/


[1] This paper was supported by the Collaborate Research Centre “Re-Figuration of Spaces” (CRC 1265) and funded by the German Research Association (DFG) (project number 290045248).


Weidenhaus, Gunter & Jörg Stollmann (2021): On the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown: Everyday Polycontexturality in Times of Digital Mediatization. In: sozialraum.de (13) Ausgabe 1/2021. URL: https://www.sozialraum.de/on-the-verge-of-a-nervous-breakdown-everyday-polycontexturality-in-times-of-digital-mediatization.php, Datum des Zugriffs: 23.07.2024