Thank you for this, John. I now have a much better idea of what you were getting at.
Morton is an interesting character, to be sure. Almost what you might expect of a renegade English professor: a lot of playing with notions and ideas and concepts and audience expectations and, well, a lot more.
His notion of “subscenence” is an attractive one, that’s for sure, and one that I believe has a lot of descriptive, explanatory, and even systasic potential, but there’s a whole lot of wordplay going on to make it happen. It makes for a somewhat entertaining presentation, even if the audience doesn’t get most of his jokes, but over time he may be obfuscating what he’s trying to reveal. I wouldn’t like to see that happen.
Holistically speaking, there is just one Whole, at least to my mind. In his talk, he talks about a variety of different wholes. These are very akin to what Gebser describes as “totalities”: perspective gives us a part which we turn into a whole, and we treat it as if it were a whole, but it’s not the whole or the Whole, it’s just part of the Whole.
There’s also a certain amount of intellectual sleight-of-hand going on here. His first portrayal of “the whole” is a mechanical one: the idea that thinking that the whole is greater (whereby he means “bigger”) than the sum of its parts, then any of the parts can be replaced and you have still have the whole. It’s a static and mechanical-like image. I’m sure that some people see the Whole just this way, but it’s just how they see it. A lot of people are coming to the realization that we can’t continue thinking that way, but deconstructing one interpretation of a saying as if it were the meaning of that saying almost borders on disingenuousness. That’s certainly not his intent, I’m sure. As I noted in our discussion yesterday, the statement “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is the “classic” definition of synergy, and synergy, as Buckminster Fuller quite expansively pointed out is anything but a mere mechanistic idea.
There are times when it is to our advantage to draw a boundary and declare something a whole, such as the ecology or the like. And we always need to remenber that our boundary-drawing with a mental construct simply to help us deal with whatever it is we want to deal with it. (If we don’t we fall into the “totality” trap of which Gebser spoke.) But even in his example, the polar bear is not a replaceable part, it is an intimate aspect or element or feature (or …) of whatever it is we bounded (temporarily intellectually) to try to deal with. But there are processes in that whole and interactions and interconnections and still unrecognized associations and influencings that are also “parts”, if you will, but hardly replaceable. Change one thing and you change everything. That’s also what I hear him saying – especially in regard to “subscendence”, but that’s another story.
The other thing about the talk that made me stumble was his liberal use of spatial metaphors where they are not really all that appropriate. There is a huge difference between “greater and lesser” compared to, say, “bigger and smaller”. Wanting to put sizes and shapes on a lot of those things we can’t see and apprehend as we might like to – as he himself aptly points out – may not be the best way to go. Granted, we have certain limits with our current language, but that’s no reason to simply give into it. What does it mean that something is “ontologically larger” than something else? The phrase makes no sense to me. The phrase – at least as I see it – is spatializing something that cannot-- and perhaps should not – be spatialized. This is a very good example of what I mean when I say that maybe we need to find ways past the language’s limitations.
Now, I would hate for you – or anyone – to think that this is a sloughing off or dismissing or rejection of what he has to say. Like I said at the onset, I think “subscendence” is a notion that has a lot to offer. I have no idea about hyperobjects and all that other stuff he throws out in rapid-fire succession, but I suspect they could also be useful notions if they aren’t obscured along the way.