Green light – An artistic workshop
A New Holism
Timothy Morton

The Buddhist concept of no-self is often taken to mean that you don’t exist at all. Which would be fine, but then you have to explain why things happen at all, and you have to wonder who it is who, according to that system, becomes enlightened.


The trouble comes from a certain interpretation of Buddhism by Buddhists themselves. Some Buddhists think that emptiness, the idea that things don’t really exist, means that the ultimate reality of a thing is some kind of total void. What if we flipped this model upside down and concurred with the other Buddhists, who think that emptiness is sort of the basis of how things can exist, how things can happen, rather than their ultimate nature? I mean, if she exists, Buddha can still use the toilet. She can get money out of a cash machine. Buddha can rescue people at the border. This seems to suggest that Buddha exists in some way.


It’s just that Buddha, like you and me, like refugees and every other human on this planet, along with everything else, exists less than we might suppose. Things are holey. A more elegant way of saying the same thing is to say that things are open. Tim Morton is open. What does it mean?


On a physical level, for starters, there’s so much of supposed Tim that isn’t strictly Tim. Tim doesn’t have some kind of “Intel Inside” sticker on everything about him: This is a Tim Morton cell, This is a Tim Morton DNA strand, This is a Tim Morton lung. Tim is made of all kinds of things (I just named three) that aren’t Tim. Even if you don’t think of evolution, this is true. But if you do, it’s especially true.


Furthermore, Tim’s ideas aren’t strictly his either. Ideas don’t have a Tim stamp. If they did then we’d have to know what Tim is first before we could make sure that logical things Tim says (very rarely) are true. And we’d need logic to describe Tim. But logic is what we’re trying to prove. So we have a bad circularity. So this idea, that thoughts are symptoms of Tim and Tim alone, can’t be right. In the age of Twitter it’s obvious that ideas are more like tweets than they are like essential bits of me. If they were, they couldn’t be retweeted, detached from me and sent around the world. Because they’re not exactly mine in the first place, I can do all kinds of things with them.


It’s the same with where Tim lives. Having a baby is a great teacher. You begin to realize that your world is shrinking. What you took to be your very own house, if you’re lucky enough to live in one, is less and less yours. You feel like you’re inhabiting an ever-shrinking island of you-space as the baby begins to crawl, use objects, knock things over, yell for attention when you were just trying to fix this plug…


You relax, eventually, when even the one-meter radius island left, the one around your body, disappears, and you realize the truth: you never had the house in the first place. You were always kind of squatting in it, like living in a hotel or a temporary camp.


But this is great. You enjoy it more that way. You don’t need to keep maintaining it. You don’t need to keep maintaining yourself. You don’t need to try to be authentic. Whatever you are is holey, open—there is less of you than you thought. When you get married in the USA the tax code treats you as one and a half people. That’s psychologically and ontologically true. You are three-quarters of a person. But that means there’s so much more wiggle room to do stuff, and to let stuff happen.


That’s the way to think of emptiness. It’s a feeling. The esoteric schools of Buddhism concur: it’s spaciousness, that moment when you go “Ahhhh!” and flop down exhausted on the sofa or the park bench or when you’ve made it into the country unscathed after a very long journey. The Sanskrit syllable for emptiness is AH for this very reason—it’s a relieved outbreath, the lovely luxury of always-available wiggle room. Always available, no matter who you are: this was Buddha’s radical message. It doesn’t matter what class you are, because remember, you’re not totally solidly you, so you’re not defined by your class. So no matter who you are, or where you are, you can practice finding the wiggle room in any situation. There is something very empowering, in a slightly anarchist way, about that. You have the controls. You don’t have to wait for some authority to tell you when to wiggle, because fundamentally, there’s plenty of wiggle going on. You just have to tune into it.


Now you might think that this is because you are “bigger” than your life situation, that you go beyond it in some way. But that’s not quite the right way to look at it, because of what we’ve just found out: we are three-quarters people, metaphorically speaking. There’s ontologically less of us—ontologically meaning “having to do with how things exist.” Things—a five-pound note, a computer cable, a razor blade—are less heavy, less of a big deal, than we like to think. They are what they are—they aren’t absolute nothing, you can handle a fork and you know that a razor blade isn’t a five-pound note.


What is in fact the case is that there’s so much more of the not-you things than there is of you. There’s so much more non-Tim DNA in Tim in order for Tim to remain alive. Think of the bacterial microbiome. Think of your mitochondria, the energy packets in your cells—they are really bacterial symbionts with their own DNA. If you only had one thought you’d never be able to do anything at all—think of how many billions of those you have, and how open and various they are too, because they’re also not totally themselves, they also contain all kinds of wiggle room.


There’s so much more of your house than there is of you. Not physically, although that may also be true. But ontologically, having to do with how things are. And if we take “house” to mean “all the stuff in my world that I use to be getting along with stuff”—which is actually a pretty good definition!—then obviously “all the stuff” is a pretty open, which is to say infinite, list. Did I say never-ending? No. I said infinite, which strictly doesn’t mean “going on and on for ever and ever,” because numbers aren’t really solid either. Infinite strictly means you can’t count it.


What does it mean? Well, I hold the idea that if a thing such as Tim exists, this thing exists in the same way as other things. Doesn’t sound like a big deal when you put it like that, “it” being object-oriented ontology. But it’s a huge deal. Notice that this doesn’t mean things have the same right to exist. That would be horrible, and it would also be illogical according to the very idea I’m mentioning here, which is that groups of things exist in the same way as their members or parts. We’ll get to that in a moment.


It’s a huge deal, because, well, just think about it. A football team, if it exists—I’m not the object police so I’m not going to prove it to you—is one thing. It’s a whole. This whole is comprised of eleven parts, the players. Eleven to say the least: we’re leaving out the manager and the pitches and the games and the stuff football players get on with (see above).


Therefore—brace for impact—the whole is always less than the sum of its parts.


I get such a kick out of writing such a counterintuitive thing, which I’ve just proved ever so simply that a small child could understand it, understand it probably better than you and me, because she hasn’t been indoctrinated into the opposite idea. The opposite idea is what we keep saying to each other, nodding our heads wisely as we show off our superior intelligence: “The whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.” What’s amazing is, when you read the opposite, you are probably hitting delete on the idea. You are probably thinking you don’t need to read any more Tim Morton because there’s obviously something wrong with him.


I think that this idea that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts is a tweet, if you like, from agricultural-age monotheism, filtered through Neoplatonic forms of it (whether they are Islam, Christianity, Judaism). God is omnipresent, which means God goes on and on forever, in space and time. And God is omniscient, which means that God, like Santa Claus making that list and checking it twice, can see everything all at once. And God is omnipotent, which means God can do everything and anything. So God is ontologically greater than the entire universe, which you might say are the parts contained within the whole that is God—I’m not going to get into all the wonderful ways of slicing and dicing this concept right now. I’m just trying to sketch out the big picture so you have a sense of where I’m coming from in this argument.


God stands for the King of the agricultural civilization, the being who assures everyone that they belong to a whole, in such a way that this whole is “something bigger” than them. Isn’t that what people often say? “I wanted to believe in something bigger, I wanted to be part of something bigger.” You are a part of a whole in such a way that the whole is greater. If you die, it doesn’t matter to the whole, in the sense that someone else will come along to do your job. That’s the kind of thinking that gave us the caste system, against which Buddha was rebelling.


A nation is in fact not a great big whole, but a small whole. You see I think it’s very important to be a holist. There aren’t only parts. If that’s true then reducing things to their parts must be the right thing to do. But as Gandalf says in Lord of the Rings, “he who breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” And the path of ontology: If you break open a piece of chalk to find out what it is, you have two problems where just before there was only one—because you now have two pieces of chalk to explain. It’s the same with particle accelerators. Or you can be like Mrs. Thatcher and say, “There is no such thing as society.” Then you can justify all kinds of cuts because the thing you’re cutting doesn’t exist as much as so-called individuals do.


But the other way around isn’t great either. It’s what I call explosive holism, this belief that the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts. For example, if you believe this you can be some kind of uncaring utilitarian and say, “Well, it doesn’t matter if this polar bear dies, because it’s the population of polar bears in general that’s more real and therefore more important. The polar bear wouldn’t exist without that, so we shouldn’t care very much about this particular one.” When you’re down to just a few, because of global warming, you can see where this idea is going to lead. It’s called extinction.


And you can believe that nature is a whole in that explosive, greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts way. Sounds nice doesn’t it? The Gaia hypothesis appears to be like that. But it’s not nice at all. If the polar bear goes extinct it doesn’t matter because Gaia or nature will replace the bear with something else. The bear, a human, this tree are all parts of a machine, because machines are like that, they are wholes with replaceable (aka less important than the whole) components.


While it’s true that without wholes you wouldn’t exist—you came out of one called mother for example—that doesn’t mean they’re more real than you. And this in turn means that there’s so much more wiggle room down there, within things. Wholes are holey.


Why do we have passports? Because nations are ontologically small. They need to be maintained with all kinds of rituals and documents. They may be very big and very powerful, and represented right now by some guy in riot gear with a water cannon. But ontologically, they are tiny. They contain multitudes. They have wiggle room. Stuff can happen. There can be change. You can do stuff, like changing the world.


The intellectual game for the last few decades has been characterized by what some people call cynical reason, which means that sentences like the ones I just wrote are seen as really, really pathetic. I’m supposed to be telling you how paralyzed we are, how much more paralyzed we are than you can possibly imagine, how bad this world is, how difficult to change, and that is supposed to make me seem more intelligent than you. How on earth did we argue ourselves into this corner? Well, again, it has to do with explosive holism. If society, history, capitalism, whatever, really is ontologically greater than us, then we have every reason to be cynical. But it’s only greater than us if you let it, in other words if you keep on cleaving to a Neoplatonic theist way of justifying the existence of a certain kind of god. It’s just that you’ve turned society or capitalism into that god. It’s funny how this is supposed to make you seem more intelligent, if you are left wing. It’s weirdly like some kinds of fundamentalism, which seem functionally to be forms of Satanism, because they believe in many cases that Satan can be more powerful than God, and they obsess about how everything you do and think could lead you away from God into Satan at the slightest notice.


I like Olafur Eliasson very much because he makes things in social space that allow us to feel all kinds of wiggle room. And he does it in a very nonconceptual way, which is to say, the things he makes are wholes that are less than their parts, because you can use them in all kinds of ways, and remember that’s one aspect of what we are calling “parts.” My world is more than me (remember the argument about having a baby). The world of a bridge or of the Green light project is more than the work itself. It’s very obvious with the latter, because the whole thing is about building and putting together things, and in turn the assembled thing is never final or complete, always less than its possible futures.


Because there’s less of me than I thought, there’s also less of my world, which is also a whole. It’s real, but it’s breezy, perforated, like a sponge. Which means I can share someone else’s world, and vice versa. I can’t do it totally, because that would mean that when I do so, the whole that results swallows all its parts. Truth can be like that too. “True” can be modal, in other words, things can be partially true, not 100 percent true. You can be half right, 70 percent accurate…you can share your world 30 percent with a lion. But it’s not zero percent, like Wittgenstein thought. Your world and the lion’s world can overlap, and this is why you can care for each other. Your world can overlap with a refugee’s world, not because you are the same underneath and your differences are superficial. It’s not because you belong to the thing called humanity, an explosive whole if ever there was one, usually modeled on some kind of straight white male. You can share worlds because there’s ontologically less of you than you supposed.


We are humans. We are not jellyfish. Humans caused global warming, which is already responsible for mass migration and conflict. Dolphins didn’t. Humans are different from dolphins. I’m very firm on this point. If we’re all made of atoms or entirely reducible to discourses that constitute what it means to be human or Tim or a citizen or whatever, then you can argue yourself to a point where you think that things can be the same—underneath they are all made of the same kind of thing. The way of saying “human” has usually tended to be a violent form of explosive holism that says your specific social and economic (and so on) differences don’t matter, or don’t matter as much as being part of something bigger. But if there’s no “human” at all, how do we care for one another on an international scale, let alone care for other lifeforms, which is what we’re now enjoined to do, not because we’ll get a prize, but because we can understand that there are problems. You don’t even need to prove global warming was caused by humans to take responsibility for it. You just have to know it’s real. You don’t have to know why a cigarette burning in a very dry forest was smoked and chucked away right there. You just have to put it out, because since you can see it and understand what it does, you are just responsible.


But we lack the philosophical and spiritual resources to give us the courage and motivation to do such things. Rightly, anyone with a clue would hate to be reduced to some omnipresent, everywhere-the-same humanity. Try imagining it. You will inevitably imagine something very specific. I think that’s interesting actually. When you try to imagine a substance that underlies appearances, you imagine another lot of appearances: maybe it’s a dull transparent lump of jelly. The very fact that the thing can be imagined, as in made to appear, means that this will always be the case. I think that there’s something in the structure of thought that’s telling us something very deep about the world, namely that you can’t peel appearances away from being.


The appearances are the parts. The being is the whole. There’s always more appearances than being. Being is ontologically small. That’s why things can happen. Appearances, which include how things work, what you do with them, what happens when they get irradiated or arrested, pour out of things as if everything were some kind of Pandora’s Box. Actually originally it was Pandora’s Jar, which is great, because a jar is…open.

Photo: Sandro E.E. Zanzinger / TBA21
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