Luhmann, Mass Media and Cinema Paradiso

Describe and explain Luhmann’s philosophy of the mass media both as it pertains to and in relation to the film Cinema Paradiso.

Niklas Luhmann was a 20th century philosopher who wrote extensively on the topic of mass media. Cinema Paradiso (1988) is a widely-acclaimed film directed by Giuseppe Tornatore which tells the story of a boy as he falls in love with cinema. I will talk about Luhmann’s systems theory in general, before looking at how Cinema Paradiso features the doubling of reality, cinema as entertainment and consensus among viewers.

Luhmanns’ Systems Theory

In The Reality of the Mass Media, Luhmann tells us that for him the term mass media “includes all those institutions of society which make use of copying technologies to disseminate communication”(2). He believes that our society is made up of three types of systems; physical systems, biological systems and social systems. Out of these three only social systems can communicate.

Our society is made up of many different systems that help to manage our society ; the legal system, the health system, the political system, the economic system etc. These systems have codes, which allow them to interpret an event in a way relevant to that system. For example, in the health system the code is healthy/unhealthy. Events happen outside of any system, but are then copied into a system through observation.

The code for the media system is information/non-information. The mass media is not interested in what is true or false, it is concerned with what is appealing or exciting. This is why so many people like to read gossip magazines. For Luhmann, the mass media speeds up our society. Once a piece of information is reported, it is no longer new. This leads to a constant search for new information. The mass media teaches society about itself through what information we deem important.


My own example is what happens if a person who drunk driving knocks down a cyclist. This involves the health system and the legal system. The legal system is concerned with the responsibility and punishment of the driver, because he has done what is illegal rather than what is legal. The health system is more concerned with treating the cyclist and looking at the injuries that were caused. Driving under the influence is illegal due to the results that alcohol has on the body, as studied by the health system. While the systems are functionally different and work with different codes, the systems can interact.

The mass media system is unique in that is ‘doubles’ the other systems. The legal system is only interested in what falls under legal/illegal but the mass media system can look at all of the other systems. It connects with the other systems and interprets them using the code information/non-information.

At the start of Cinema Paradiso we are introduced to Salvatore Di Vita, affectionately nicknamed Toto, who is a mischievous, cheeky, young boy. He seems to take nothing seriously, until we see him in the cinema. His facial expression and his actions are that of wonder and awe. We see him more in the cinema than anywhere else.

The cinema and the films that are shown mirror Salvatore’s own ageing process. His personal growth is always tied to the cinema in some shape or form; he smokes his first cigarette in while watching a film, he loses his virginity on the floor of the cinema, he gets his first job there as Alfredo’s replacement and he kisses Elena for the first time in the projectionist booth.

Giancaldo is a working-class village where there is no chance to gain real fame or fortune. Only money can help the people get out. Alfredo feels stuck in Giancaldo, a fate he wants Salvatore to avoid. He wants Salvatore to make a real life for himself, something he can only do by leaving.

During the screening of La Terra Trema: Episodio del Mare (Luchino Visconti, 1948), we can see all three of Luhmann’s program strands. There is advertising for a new John Wayne film, then the news is shown, before finally getting to the entertainment. However, for the young Salvatore, worried about his own father in Russia, the projection booth again acts as his escape. Instead of watching the news he turns to the booth, imagining the lion’s head coming to life and roaring. This distracts him from his fears until the film begins.

Cinema as entertainment

For the people living in the small town of Giancaldo, the cinema is entertainment. For them, it is a social occasion, which everybody gets involved in. As a group they laugh, cry and shout together. To not have seen a film is embarrassing. This is what leads to troubles from locals when they can’t watch the latest film to be shown. When the cinema burns down the priest remarks “What do we do now? No more entertainment in the village, nothing”. Luckily, Ciccio wins the pools and decides to rebuild the cinema, re-naming it the ‘Nuovo Cinema Paradiso’. The entertainment is brought back to Giancaldo. Entertainment is a big part of Luhmann’s mass media system. The films are a treat for the townspeople. They are not on all the time,  this is what makes them special. It provides them with a temporary distraction from their work, without being so long that it hinders the running of their lives. Luhmann declares that “every piece of entertainment must come to an end, and must bring this about itself” (56). It is only by it ending, we can move onto newer and more exciting pieces of entertainment.

This brings me onto Luhmann’s theory of redundancy and variety (Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems,134). In our society we want both of these. If we have a favourite television show, we like to know that it will be on the same channel, at the same time, on the same day of the week, but we want there to be different content each time. In The Radical Luhmann, Moeller defines it using democracy as an example by stating that democracy becomes stable because it allows for instability: “governments change, but the system thereby remains intact” (91). In Cinema Paradiso we see desire for both redundancy and variety in the cinema-goers. They want to be able to watch a film in the cinema, at set times, on set days, but have a different film to watch each time. The viewers have their routines: there is one man who repeatedly falls asleep, there is a man who continually spits on those from the balcony and the children always sit at the front. Alfredo tells Salvatore he works nearly every day of the year, a continuing task that he has to perform. The people of Giancaldo want to see a new film as often as they can. While there is redundancy, the latest film provides them with the entertainment. When Salvatore goes to get Part Two of Catene, Ciccio says he can just replay Part One, but this isn’t what the audience wants.

For Salvatore, the cinema is a way of escaping his worries. It is his slice of heaven. Our first view of the projection booth shows it with a spotlight coming from somewhere high in the room outside the shot, casting a shaft of light onto Alfredo and his equipment. This gives the booth a divine feel, reinforcing the idea that it is Salvatore’s sanctuary. In the Cinema Paradiso he can take a break from his own reality and join the reality of the film through his imagination. In The Reality of the Mass Media Luhmann agrees that this entertaining, saying “it is extremely tempting to try out virtual realities on oneself” (59-60).

The Doubling of Reality

The film doubles the reality of Salvatore and Alfredo’s lives. The film in many places seems to predict what will happen in the rest of Cinema Paradiso.

The first film that we see playing in the Cinema Paradiso is Verso la Vita (1936). It was directed by Jean Renoirand features a group of poor people hoping for a better future. In the clip we see, Vassilissa saying to Wasska: “One day everything will be ours, we’ll go away together… to live the good life.” This is exactly what Alfredo hopes for Salvatore. At the end we see that by Salvatore fulfilling this dream of Alfredo’s. They have both won.

During the film the narrator tells us the fishermen must endure “12 hours of  blood and sweat to take home the bare minimum required not to die of hunger.” This shows the poverty of the people. After the film is over there are men being told that “Here you work from dawn to dusk … and no questions about pay.” The poverty of those in the film is contrasted with the workers outside the cinema. It merges the reality of the film with the reality of Giancaldo.

The fact that Alfredo and Salvatore are in a film, talking about and quoting films, makes Cinema Paradiso postmodern. Television shows such as The Simpsons are very postmodern because they make many references to films, books and even other television shows. For us as viewers, the film is separate from our lives, we know that these characters are only actors playing out a role. However for a short while, we are supposed to buy into the fictional reality of the plot. Luhmann says “the mechanism of generating the text must not appear again in the text itself” (57). If we were to see a crew member in the film, we could no longer take it seriously, and it would lose its entertainment value. The films the characters of Cinema Paradiso talk about are in our world. We can go and watch these films. These numerous references to other films blurs the lines of reality. It places the story line somewhere in between reality and fiction.

When Salvatore takes over from Alfredo, we see him mimicking Alfredo’s actions. When Salvatore is in trouble later on, he quotes Alfredo. The film becomes self-referential by doing
this. Salvatore keeps invoices how Alfredo did, he eats out of a tin that looks very like Alfredo’s, he put up posters in the booth like Alfredo did. Salvatore’s imitation of Alfredo repeats what we originally saw Alfredo doing.

At the end of the film, it is Giuseppe Tornatore that works as Salvatore’s projectionist. This cameo makes Tornatore both a character and the director: both fiction and non-fiction.

Consensus among viewers

Luhmann says that viewers do not have to agree on what they have watched, they are perfectly entitled to their own opinions. After the screening of La Terra Trema: Episodio del Mare the audience is leaving, chatting among themselves about the film:

“Nice film. That young man worked so hard”

“Why did he go and buy that boat?”

“Idiot! You didn’t understand anything”

Everybody is different. Certain things in a person’s past may make them react to a piece of film differently to the person sitting next to them. It depends on, but is not limited to the personality of the viewer: their likes, dislikes, past and current situation.

However, the people of Giancaldo nearly always react as a whole to the films. When they watch Catene, most of the audience are crying. We are shown all types of people dabbing their eyes. The films are seen as social gatherings, and we repeatedly watch the audience members reacting in very similar ways.

Luhmann’s system theory regarding the mass media is easily applied to Cinema Paradiso. We can analyze it regarding the doubling of the mass media, cinema as entertainment and the consensus of audiences. Cinema Paradiso is a film about the greatness of film. It’s many references to other works make it easy to talk about in the sphere of the mass media.

Works cited


  • Borch, Christian. Niklas Luhmann. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
  • Luhmann, Niklas. The Reality of the Mass Media. Trans. Kathleen Cross. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996. Print.
  • Moeller, Hans-Georg. The Radical Luhmann. New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Print.
  • Moeller, Hans-Georg. Luhmann Explained: From Souls to Systems. Chicago: Open Court, 2006. Print.


  • Catene.Dir. Raffaello Matarazzo. Titanus Distribuzione, 1949.
  • Cinema Paradiso. Dir. Giuseppe Tornatore. Miramax Films, 1988. DVD.
  • La Terra Trema: Episodio del Mare. Dir. Luchino Visconti. Compagnia Edizioni Internaionali Artistiche Distribuzione, 1948.
  • Verso la Vita. Dir. Jean Renoir. Arthur Mayer & Joseph Burstyn, 1936.

‘Life is but a Motion of Limbs’ – the theme of motion in the Leviathan

This post is a short summary regarding the theme of motion in the Leviathan, and how Thomas Hobbes uses it in his scientific analysis of society.


Galileo was a great influence on Hobbes and scientific method of examining the world. Galileo had come up with inertia; that a body will continue endlessly with the same velocity unless an outside force acts on it. Hobbes agreed with this idea, stating it is “a truth that no man doubts of”. This differed greatly to Aristotle’s ‘final cause’ theory, which stated that every object or body had a final purpose or end, and that each object or body moved towards this goal or its telos. He criticizes Aristotle’s personification of material objects, calling it “absurd”. In many places throughout Leviathan Hobbes totally dismisses Aristotle’s work and the dogma of the Catholic philosophers. For Aristotle, motion is only to help an object to move towards its telos. There were three other causes; the material, the formal and the efficient. Hobbes disregards the causes, and believes everything can be explained scientifically. Hobbes says that motion is caused from motion, and that there is a constant stream of cause and effect.

Hobbes believed there was motion for the sake of motion. At this time William Harvey had discovered that blood is circulated around the body and it happens continuously until death. This fell in line with Hobbes theory. There is always motion, even if it appears there is none. Even though we may be sitting or lying down, the blood is in motion, and this motion keeps us alive; “Life is but a motion of limbs.”

Mechanical Heart –

Hobbes sees motion in a mechanical way. The motion within the body is very similar to the motion that helps machines or automata to run. Even thought we may not see it, there are many cogs and springs and wheels all moving to make the machine move. He believes this can also be applied to society, but it must be created by us. In the same way we give machines artificial life, “the sovereignty is an artificial soul”. If everybody performed their duties and obeyed a set of common laws, then society would function properly. This is reflected in Durkheim’s Organic Solidarity; while people may have different jobs, all are interlinked and interdependent, and if each group worked efficiently it would result in an efficient society.

In chapter six, Hobbes identifies two motions within humans; vital and voluntary. By vital he means things we must do to stay alive such as sleeping, eating and breathing. These are continuous actions that stop only when the body has died. Voluntary motions however are not necessary for our survival e.g. speaking and walking. These movements are brought about by our imagination and our thoughts, which lead to our ‘endeavours’. Endeavours start as thoughts in our mind which causes actions related to those thoughts. There is motion in these thoughts and imaginings, even if we can’t see them. These motions lead to motion of the body, one constantly leading to another. “Nor can a man any more live, whose desires are at an end, than he whose senses and imaginations are at a stand.” This shows that Hobbes believes motion is necessary for living.

Aversions / Desires

Endeavours can appear as desires or aversions, both of which signify motions. If you desire something, you move towards it and if you are averse to it then you move away from the object. By having aversions, you also have desires, one creates the other. If there are two drinks on a table, by moving towards the one you prefer, you are at the same time moving away from the other. Desires and aversions appear when the object is not present. When the object is present, we either love or hate it. If we want or desire an object, we call it good, and what we don’t want is bad. Good or bad is individualistic and differs according to the person’s desires or aversions rather than a moral good or bad. This means that motions are also individualistic.

This urge to fulfill our desires is reflected in Hobbes’ account of power. We want power after power that “ceaseth only in death”. After we achieve one power, we instantly move towards our next goal. For us, power is important to help us achieve our future wants and desires, and to protect us from future aversions.

The problem of Free Will – Compatibilism versus Determinism

In this article I will look at whether Compatibilism is a convincing free will theory or is it just a way of holding onto our intuitive feeling of freedom.

Our ordinary sense of having freedom is usually understood as the ability to choose or act as we like, where nothing is forcing or hindering us from doing so.  If we are being tied up, of course we are not free to do as we wish. In the same sense, if somebody is threatening to harm a loved one if unless we do x, y or z then we feel we have no freedom. An example similar to this can be found in chapter two of Kane’s book A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will. Even though we want to do the action to save our loved one, our freedom is restricted. While we want to save our loved one from harm, what we really want is to not do the action at the same time as not having a love one hurt. In legal cases, coercion, defined as “the relation of the parties is such that one is under subjection to the other, and is thereby constrained to do what his free will would refuse” can be used to argue that a person is not responsible for their actions, and they should not be punished.

Freedom implies you could have done otherwise. There are two different kinds of freedom; surface freedom and deeper freedom. Surface freedom is the power to make our own choices, whereas deeper freedom is the ability to form our own desires. Our free will is manipulated by many factors including television, peer pressure, and celebrities. Advertising is the most obvious example of this manipulation. To influence our decision-making is the whole point behind advertising. Companies spend vast amounts of money on raising awareness of a particular brand or product. In his article Think Tank: It’s the subconscious that makes ads workLaurence Green says “it is our subconscious response to advertising … that is the primary driver of its effectiveness, and not our conscious consumption.” At the point of conscious consumption, we have already been swayed by the advertising.

Determinism is the idea that every event is necessitated by previous events and conditions together with the laws of nature. It is directly conflicting with the Libertarian view. Because the past happened in one way, then the future will be a certain way. If x, then y. If I was trying to choose between going to see a horror movie or a comedy movie, I would choose a comedy movie and that’s always the way it was going to go. In my past I watched a horror movie and I didn’t enjoy it, I do not deal well with blood and the comedy movie has Will Ferrell in, who I like as an actor. These are events in my past that meant I would always choose the comedy movie. If these events were not in my past, it would not be my past, therefore there is no need to talk about this current situation. Naturally, people will always avoid what they find painful or unpleasant. There was only one path leading to the present, and there is only one path leading on from it.

Compatibilism is the view that free will and determinism can coexist. Our future is still determined by the past and the laws of nature. The choices we face now are the cause of the choices we faced in the past. There is one path to the present, which was created by our decisions, and while we do have choices regarding our future, there will only be one outcome.

For compatibilists, freedom is an ability for a person to do what they want and be unrestricted in doing so. The ability to do otherwise means there was a wish to do otherwise, and in that case, the past would have been different. They use a conditional or hypothetical translation of the word ‘can’; “I could have done otherwise” is the same as saying “I would have done otherwise, if I had wanted to.” they seek to replace ‘could’ or ‘can’. However, this only applies to surface freedom, not to deeper freedom. The idea of a deeper freedom is nonsensical to both determinists and compatibilists. They look at the ability to do what we want, and do not question where the wants come from. After all, our desires are what is important. The compatibilists argue that this is one reason why people reject compatiblism; “they have confused ideas about freedom.”

Another reason people may be critical of compatibilism is because they do not fully understand determinism. Compatibilists give us instructions to help us see determinism from the compatibilist point of view (Kane 18-20);

  1. Don’t confuse determinism with constraint, coercion or compulsion
  2. Don’t confuse causation with constraint
  3. Don’t confuse determinism with control by other agents
  4. Don’t confuse determinism with fatalism
  5. Don’t confuse determinism with mechanism


Incompatibilists do not agree with the compatibilists claim “could have done otherwise” because they feel this goes against determinism. If somebody could have done otherwise, then how is the future determined? They say that, for determinism to work, there can be no possibilities regarding the future.

Libertarianism is one form of incompatibilism. It is the view that we do have free will. Our past choices have lead us up to the present, and our decisions now will shape our future. We are responsible for our actions and we have control. We are morally responsible for our actions, and we should be praised or punished accordingly. Believers of libertarianism oppose determinism.

If determinism is true, then what happens to moral responsibility, blame, reward and punishment? If our future is determined, then we are not responsible for our actions. The majority of people believe in punishment and reward as a general way of social behaviour. However, these days the legal systems does seem to reflect that our actions may sometimes not be our fault. For example, if a young teenager is introduced to drugs by an older friend, and she becomes an addict and then a criminal, we recognise that it is not entirely her fault. We tend to think the blame should be put on the older friend, or maybe her parents. While we do not deny that any crime is bad, the punishment is normally less severe if we feel there are other parties to blame.

Many people believe that with determinism, it means that we must abandon our aspirations for the future. Honderich says “We have a kind of life-hope which is incompatible with a belief in determinism. An open future, a future we can make for ourselves.” However, I do not agree that we should give up hoping for things, even if we know the future is determined. For example, we can still hope that we do well in a test or that we like our haircut when it is finished. I think that how we view the weather is reflective of how determinists think we should look at the world; most people will hope for a certain state of weather, and may sometimes try to predict it, but people know that what they hope for doesn’t have any actual influence on the outcome of the weather. If what they wish for ends up not happening, they can shrug it off, while still being happy if does align with their desires. A counter-argument to that may be this; people see the weather as being a trivial matter in their day-to-day lives, and they would not view their life hopes in this way. I understand this but I just believe this is how determinists would prefer us to view our inability to govern our future.

Consequence argument

The consequence argument says that if determinism is true, then we have no control over our actions, because we can’t change our past i.e. what happened before we were born, or the laws of nature. If determinism is true, then nobody has any control over what will happen in his or her future. This works against compatibilism because most believe intuitively believe in free will, and our ability to control how our future turns out.

The compatibilists use the hypothetical translation of can to defend claims against compatibilism.  “I would have done otherwise, if I had wanted to do, and I could have wanted otherwise.” But when we take this statement and try to further analyze it, it turns into “I would have done otherwise, if I had wanted to do, and I would have wanted otherwise, if I had wanted to want otherwise … and I could have wanted otherwise”. The argument has the flaw of infinite regress. This leads incompatibilists to say that the version of can that the compatibilists use must be flawed, and that the compatibilist’s entire defence rests on a version of ‘can’ they made up, so it is not a strong argument anyway.

My view

Personally, I believe in determinism. Compatibilism seems to makes perfect sense when you first look at it, but when you look at the opposing arguments you can see the holes within the compatibilist theory. I believe we are subject to conditioning from our schools, friends, parents and other groups, and our actions reflect the way they have taught us. However, they have been taught by their own parents and schools and so on. Our conditioning is a reflection of their conditioning, and this can lead back many generations. Of course we cannot change the laws of nature, so that stands valid for me. We have no choice over the family or social situation we were born into. My wants and desires are formed because of my own social training. Even though I may want to go out with my friends – a desire formed because of my belief that it would be fun and being social is important, along with my past experiences of other good nights – I know that if I do, I will not be able to get up for my important lecture the next morning. I want and desire two different things, and it would seem I have a choice. I have been taught by my parents that education is very important, I know I can see my friends at other times, and that I would rather not fail the year, so I ‘decide’ to go home. I see these as first-order and second-order desires, relating to long and short term hopes. It is our conditioning that governs our actions, and choice is just an illusion, a testing of our conditioning. As for discipline and reward, people have to be reprimanded for doing things that are deemed socially unacceptable. While they may not be ultimately responsible, they have to be made an example of, in order to influence a person who may have previously had criminal tendencies. With reward, it may influence others who see the praise being received into wanting to act more like that person.

While compatibilism may be semi-convincing, it is hard to stand for the position without recognizing its flaws. As philosophers, logical flaws are a major irritation, and cannot be ignored easily.

  • Kane – A Contemporary Introduction to Free Will
  • SEP / Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy is a great place for not only definitions of philosophical terms, but for writers on a topic, arguments for and against, and other related topics. Causal DeterminismCompatibilismIncompatibilism,