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.....



This is my first entry into what is for me the rather new world of blogging. I will keep this brief and offer a list of themes that will be intrinsic to it and constitutive of its meaning, its purpose, and journey.


Much of this blog will involve serious questions about aesthetic objects. Like Camille Paglia, I take the world of art to be a most inclusive one, a category that includes Rembrandt paintings and Hustler centerfolds, architecture, the most immoral reality show, as well as a Henry James story or Balanchine classic like Rubies. Unlike most commentators today (and indeed unlike Paglia who is indiscriminate in her enthusiasms), however, I will be the most exclusive in my evaluations. It may all be art-popular, or rarefied-but it is far from all good. (I have problems with calling it "culture" which I will make clearer at another post). Moreover, I take evaluation to be a process which should strive for objectivity, rather than remain mired in topicality and fashion. I use the word art not merely to refer to high culture of either the canonical sort but as a placeholder word for acts and objects of representation that humans make in order that they may express things in a way not realizable in the daily life of work and leisure. Art is Pound's news that stays news and it is irreducible in a way quite contrary to, say, science.
I will ask a lot of hard questions about a work's quality, whether it is worthy of our attentions, but above all I will be concerned with questions of STYLE. As Nabokov pointed out, the manner is the matter. I take style and form to be essential in understanding what humans make and why. Another "man and woman in the street", commonsensical way of putting it is to say that "it's not what you do, its how you do it". For example, the film Crazy Heart is always discussed in a generic way, as another version of The Wrestler. But if we consider, form and style, that is, the details of how each narrative unfolds we realize that what is important are the differences, even if it is the seemingly trivial difference of the the 1970s styled Southern motels and bars of Crazy Heart versus the more cold interiors of The Wrestler, or more importantly, the difference between the long sustained relations between Bridges and Gyllenhal in the former and the bombastic and disconnected relations of Rourke and the people he interacts with in the latter. Talking about plots and genres is easy, and it actually has little to do with how we FEEL when we experience a work. (Whether that work is pictorial, documented, or recorded in prose matters little because the principle of style holds for all of these mediums). What is difficult is talking as the old phenomenologists did, about texture and tone. But this difficulty is where the truth lies. In this sense I am a formalist because I shall argue that the form trumps other considerations, though form should be understood here as a concept that in no way is emptied of content, ethical or otherwise.

I will spend little time on political questions. The focus will be not trying to convert anyone to any particular idea but rather on trying to reach or touch things in us that are out of reach by politics and politicians even if they are have the supreme gifts of an Obama. The focus will be on matters of some mystery, in the end, on matters of individual consciousness rather than group forces, though considerations of classes, races, and sexed humans will be important where appropriate to the discussion. In general, however, I take individual human subjectivity to still be the final frontier, and I plead guilty to some rather quaint humanist notions in this regard if I am interrogated by those with a more collective and sociological emphasis. I believe personal and individual temperaments are more important than collective concerns. "There is no history, only biography".

Having said that, we must take note of the discontinuity in history, of how collective sea changes in sensibility are important, all the while remembering that we are individuals and transcend the contingencies of tribal identity and loyalty, and mass movements. This is true whether we want it to be or not, however much we take from the commons, from the whole, however proud we are of our particular tribe and however little we think of our unique contribution. (As every parent of more than one child knows there is something irreducibly stubbornly INDIVIDUAL about each of the children). In general little will be off limits in this blog and my interests will be wide. Indeed my first post will be largely abstract and not about art at all. The abstract questions that have little to do with aesthetics will involve a bit of sociology because I will want to ask questions about why humans now or in the past, behave as they do, and, finally, why they like or dislike the particular works of art they see. Ways of life and lifestyle are important and all too often they are taken for granted; either they are defended as the best way for all by initiates into a particular lifestyle, or they are decried by detractors from the uncomprehending outsider. Rarely are ways of life actually examined and evaluated.

That is all for now, for the hour is late and this is but my toes in shallow water.