“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Monday, March 7, 2011

Ecology, Holism, OOO

Gaia and Attendant

A commenter writes concerning a previous post:

I appreciate your distinction between OOO objects, objectification, and subject/object dichotomies; I've been working on ways to put these types of distinction in dialogue with contemporary US women-of-colors theorizing. I have a question: I’ve noticed that OOO seems to view holism with great suspicion. For instance, you write, “ the appropriate philosophy for an ecological era is an object-oriented ontology (OOO) that respects the withdrawn strangeness of objects while simultaneously 1) not discriminating against them in any way (reductionism, holism, anthropocentrism, biocentrism).” I can understand why reductionism, anthropocentrism, and biocentrism could be seen as discriminating against objects, but why holism? Or maybe I should be asking, what is the definition of holism you guys are using?
Good questions. And I'm really glad that the commenter is thinking OOO issues through race and gender.

Before I even got into OOO I was doubtful that holism was a great model for ecological philosophy. (There are some arguments about it in The Ecological Thought.) Mostly this is because holism imagines that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and so, ultimately, the whole is separate from the parts in some sense. In other words, you can replace the parts and the whole would remain the same.

Aldo Leopold's land ethic, for instance, states this quite firmly: “good” means whatever is good for the biotic community as a whole. Or think of Gaia: it doesn't matter if humans go extinct, Gaia will persist.

Of course that also means it doesn't matter if coral or polar bears go extinct. Do Gaians really believe that?

Holism, then, is a form of mechanism in disguise. (Usually a nice dark green leafy disguise with heavily reverbed tribal drums beating slowly in the background.) Just as the parts of a machine are replaceable without changing the machine, so the parts of Gaia or the biotic community are replaceable. Do you want to be a replaceable component in a machine? Is that where ecological philosophy should point us? Haven't we had enough of that?

Isn't holism, then, another mode of modernity, and thus especially unsuited to the time of hyperobjects, the time of coexistence with strange strangers?

From here we can proceed quite fast to OOO. OOO states the problem more simply and more profoundly—the reason we can't be holists is because of the nature of reality as such.

For OOO-ists there is no bottom object, so reductionism is untenable as the commenter states. But there is also no top object, for the same reason. As well as reducing things downward to tinier objects (reductionism, undermining) you can also dissolve them upwards into holistic systems.

This upward dissolution is what Graham Harman calls overmining.

In the name of the medium sized objects that coexist on Earth (Aspen trees, polar bears, nematode worms, slime molds, coral, mitochondria, Starhawk and, sadly, Glenn Beck), we should forge a genuinely new ethical view that doesn't reduce them or dissolve them.


ai said...

Tim - Isn't the holism you're critiquing only one kind of holism, the extreme kind that eco-theorists themselves have critiqued as a form of (or as potentially harboring) "eco-fascism"?

I would argue that most ecological theorists hold to a form of holism that is nothing more than an emergentism, i.e. that acknowledges that there *are* wholes (i.e. emergent systems, assemblages, or what you may call 'hyper-objects') that are more than the sums of their parts. Defining wholes as *merely* and nothing more than the sums of their parts is mechanistic and reductionist. Defining them as 'more' doesn't mean they are separate from those parts and that the parts are all interchangeable, inconsequential, and of no value in themselves. It means, rather, that there are relational processes that have emerged among the parts that now constitute another (generally larger) whole entity.

*Value* holism, which values the whole over the parts - and which we find not only in fascism but also in communitarianism, some kinds of socialism, and the ecologism of Leopold's Land Ethic (as you've indicated) - is, from my perspective, problematic. But individualism isn't the only solution (though it's widespread). This is all, of course, a longstanding debate in environmental ethics, where feminism and other kinds of relational ethics have made important inroads. I think there's room for an OOO voice in that discussion. From my knowledge of OOO, I'm guessing it is something like a more democratized version of the sort of individualism that Paul Taylor's biocentic ethics imply, but pushed beyond 'bio' to include everything.B But maybe I'm wrong about that.


AnaLouise said...

Hi Tim, Thanks for taking the time to respond to my question. So the holism that you guys critique is an either/or version--either parts or the whole must be greater? I guess I'm wondering if there could be other possible holisms that adopt some version of both/and thinking so that neither the parts nor the whole--whatever the whole might be--are greater. I'm wondering about a relational holism that draws from thinkers like David Bohm, Emerson, and William James, so that the parts are not necessarily lesser than the whole but exist in some both/and synergistic fashion; you could have–simultaneously-- “withdrawn” objects and something else (an open-ended, perhaps always-expanding something else). The latter is synergistically in addition to (and possibly partially generated/created by these objects); it doesn’t replace the objects. Best, AnaLouise

Timothy Morton said...

Hi Adrian, You certainly have a point. I shall think about this. AnaLouise, since you bring up David Bohm, I shall address this in another post--but funnily enough Bohm is quite explicitly against holism. I don't have my copy of Wholeness and the Implicate Order to hand but he states this quite early on. In fact his reasoning is identical with mine on that (holism is a form of mechanism).

Timothy Morton said...

Adrian and AnaLouise, I continue my thoughts in a post above.

Genie said...

Tim, I can understand the ecological notion that the whole is less than the sum of it's parts when we consider the individual as separate and therefor valued independently to the whole (the polar bear and the bees, for example).
However, where does that put community? And how does a community affect an individual participant and the society at large if not through some sort of correlational effect? I guess community cannot be reduced to its individuals, nor the facilitator or 'creator', nor to the action or non-action to which the community is driven and identified, nor to the place or time context in which it exists. But surely there must be some sort of correlation toward place and community and community to the whole in some sort of symbiotic communication?
I guess what I am asking is how can community negotiate with the notion that 'the whole is less than the sum of its parts'? And in that, is it possible for the community, in it's own identity, to affect the whole?