Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Trouble With Holism

The trouble with holism
For a few decades now, holism was supposed to be the salvation of all individual and social problems. Time and again, we were told, by pundits, experts, lay speakers, that the world is one, that everything is connected, and that we separated too much; that what we had thought was unconnected was in reality thoroughly intertwined, and shot through with a single meaning, and aiming towards a single, central goal. Romantics and mystics among us would call it something like "love".

The material embodiment and culmination of this notion has been the web and the internet. Well now we have this thing called the internet and we have achieved our dream of having no separateness. The dream of having everything in one place. And what are the results? Everything is conducted in one place. It is as if we took the concept of holism most literally and symptomatically. Ten year olds, thirty year olds and eighty year olds all have access to the same information. A world of total transparency. Yet we all know that those three demographic groups have many more differences than they do similarities, even to the point where we make it illegal for the youngest among us to experience certain aspects of life. In many ways the internet might be an extension of television, however much defenders of the internet like to decry television as old fashioned, out of touch, and undemocratic. We should be positively nostalgic for the days of television when everyone watched Carson and Cronkite before the vast chaos of multiple subcultures and identities.

Is anyone courageous or commonsensical enough to worry that this "literalist" holism is a very bad thing in at least one respect? Humans were never meant to know everyone else's business. If we did, if we were totally transparent and psychic, we would not be able to handle it, and civilization would self-destruct, we would kill each other over passions from the petty to the grand.

We are not one. Our interests are not, and should not, be forced into (re)alignment. Indeed our interests are rarely the same. A single woman in the city pursing a life of unencumbered freedom might be at odds with a woman with children in the suburbs. The interests of the pedestrian and driver clash at every turn. It is not so much the trivial point that our tastes are not the same. Rather our temperaments are at odds. And as long as we remain human we must accept the fact that on many matters we are doomed to a state of "mutual imaginative incomprehension." (Thomas Nagel). In one sense we should feel that this is a good thing since it adds drama to our lives and we can become surprised. Opacity and indirection, reticence and politeness, are ways of keeping the peace, of acknowledging that we cannot handle too much reality.

In the past our problem was a world that was too reticent, too buttoned up. Part of the appeal of that television media event that is Madmen is our awareness of the distance travelled, our feeling of safe distance from a world that we regard as suffocating and, in a sense beneath our current feeling of advancement and entitlement. But conversely, the appetite and hunger for the show is symptomatic of our sense of grief and loss at having gone to the opposite extreme. We have traded in an unfair exclusiveness for an indiscriminate inclusiveness.

Unfortunately all of this mad utopianism is being sold as democracy and community. But the founders of democracy presupposed a society of secrets, of privacy. WIthout the checks and balances of our separations we could never have a public square NEUTRAL enough to contain reasoned argument and debate. That is what a civilization is. (Though I am aware that some anarchists among us are opposed to civilization. But that is another topic for another time).

And what are the results of everything in one place?

There seems to be a loss of nightlife, the movie theater is not the palace it once was, for example. Why go out and hear music or see theater if you can watch it at home and download it? I understand most of our newspapers are folding.

I am no social conservative but there are simply some, or many things, children should not look at or witness. And what of the least intelligent among us or the most sensitive among us - those whose skills are insufficiently self directed to not be unduly influenced by quackery, demogoguery and the like? I feel the older regime checked some of the predations upon the more vulnerable. Though we may feel that our newfound consciousness and knowledge of some of the evils that were hidden in the past is only a help, in the way of moral instruction and legal protection of the vulnerable; though we may feel that the risk of public exposure and transparency is a risk worth taking when placed against, say, the repression and irresponsible innocence of the fifties, we aren't taking seriously enough the potential losses in the form of the erosion of the public and private distinction, the loss of a certain attitude of awe or mystery, and even the understanding of "specialness" as a mode of prioritizing values. New York Times pundit Tom Friedman's cherished "flatness" could be "flatness" in the most souless, shallow, "one dimensional" sense.

Am I a luddite? No, not really. I just think the dream of one place is in reality putting all our eggs in one basket. And the basket might break and the eggs might crack. Should that happen, where is our "backup?"

I am sure I might a appear an old fogey. I am essentially making the classically conservative argument that warns against too much democracy, or direct democracy, and against the tyranny of the community - if by extreme or direct democracy we mean something like a society without regulations, boundaries, and hierarchies of any sort, and if by community we mean rule by convention and majority wishes. (Though I am a liberal making the argument).

That is all for now.....


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