Holism Upgraded

on October 25, 2014

We’ve now reached the onset of one of those recurring points in the cycle of visions when all the current visions mutate, realign, and take on new roles. Those changes are going to be extremely interesting to watch as they unfold — both for their own sake and as a real-time experiment in how the visions do what they do.

In the previous entry, I discussed the ongoing collapse of the aging democracy vision, the resulting breakdown of the democracy-and-chaos partnership, and how this has enabled the younger holism and horizontalism visions to take center stage.

Over the next decade or so, each of these four visions is going to move along one step. The democracy vision will fade away, except as an increasingly nostalgic point of reference. The chaos vision will shed its current arrogance and take a back seat to the holism vision in a new dominant partnership that will assume the leadership of society. And once that happens, the horizontalism vision — which will have played an instrumental role in these other changes — will be elbowed aside and forced into the role of the rowdy outsider.

However, all this will take a while, and the chaos, holism, and horizontalism visions will have to go through some painful adjustments along the way. Meanwhile there will be no dominant partnership to stabilize society, so we can also expect the next ten or twelve years to be a time of increasing social and philosophical fragmentation.

Some years back, I did a couple of entries on the equivalent transitions of the 1920s and the 1970s that may be worth rereading. But although both these periods provide certain clues as to what may happen over the next decade, there’s literally no way to predict exactly how things will end up.

For one thing, this phase during which all the visions are broken down and remade is always a time of extreme indeterminacy, and even seemingly minor events and personalities can have major long-term effects. For another, while the twentieth century periods of change were centered in just a few Western nations, this one is world-wide and many more factors are in play.

The horizontalism vision, in particular, is likely to develop most actively outside the United States. It has already undergone one major flowering in Argentina in 2001, prompted the Arab Spring in early 2011, and is now inspiring both the Hong Kong protesters and the Kurdish resistance to ISIS. As regions like these forge ahead, the US can be expected to cling to the fading remnants of the democracy vision — which is what declining empires always do when the vision that once swept them to greatness rolls back out to sea.

But leaving aside the unknowable details of places and persons, what can be said for certain is that horizontalism will serve as a catalyst to reshape first holism and then the chaos vision, while itself remaining relatively unchanged. This reshaping is what will enable chaos and holism — which have become largely estranged from one another since the 1970s — to find common ground on which to base a new dominant partnership.

That final resolution is still a long way off, though. My immediate interest is in what’s going on at the moment — the reorientation of holism towards horizontalism.

It’s already apparent that horizontalism has started to lift holism out of the bleak mood of alienation and despair that overtakes every outsider vision just before the dominant partnership collapses. Holism did this for chaos back in the 1960s, when gloomy, black-garbed beatniks were transformed into tie-dyed hippies, and something comparable is happening now.

However, it’s more than just a shift in mood. It’s also a reflection of deep structural changes in the holism vision itself.

My son Toby, who blogs about comic books, recently did an entry which suggested that a new “age” in comics began around 2010-11 and is now becoming more widely apparent. To make his point, he drew a contrast between the actions of DC and those of Marvel over the last few years.

Of the DC universe, he writes, “Since the New-52 reboot they have been aggressively seeking refuge in the glories of the past, reverting to an Iron Age style of storytelling. On the widest scale the new DCU has been predominantly focused on the fantastic and otherworldly in their event books: extra-dimensional invaders, existential threats to reality, and the ongoing conflict of super against super. Tonally, as well, there seems to be a retreat towards the 90s with superhero costumes that look more like battle armor and an emphasis on grimness and violence.”

Every element in this description points towards the holism vision — which has never been solely about ecology but extends to a more general perception of the physical universe as ruled by vast cosmic forces. In that larger sense, holism has furnished the rationale for the entire superhero mythos, from the heroes’ vaguely scientific powers to their otherworldly and extra-dimensional exploits and antagonists.

According to Toby, DC is now doubling down on this cosmic approach, along with the “grimness and violence” that had crept into the holism vision in the course of the 1990s. Marvel, in contrast is becoming is a lot more pluralistic and experimental, both in the nature of its heroes and in the books themselves. This pluralistic approach speaks of the influence of horizontalism, as does Marvel’s greater openness to social engagement.

Toby writes:

Marvel, on the other hand, has taken the opposing path. If the superhero cannot help but change the world, than the world must change. Along with that we have seen a more experimental approach, actively questioning the nature and form of their heroes, and trying to figure out how they could mesh organically with the world around them. …

In Hawkeye, we see a superhero living in an apartment building, becoming a part of the community there. In the Superior Spider-Man arc, we saw what would happen if someone other than Peter Parker — his arch-foe, no less — took up the mantle of the Spider. In Thor: God of Thunder, we see an increased emphasis on Thor not just as a hero, but as a god who hears prayers. Each of these stories in some way transmutes the superhero into something a little different, to question what the fundamental nature of the superhero is and see how far and in how many ways you can change it without it breaking as a concept.

Beyond this, Marvel also seems to be playing with the role of the superhero not just in-universe, but on a meta-level in terms of the superhero genre. They are putting forth a lot of effort to bring in writers and artists with many different styles –compare the look of Ghost Rider, Hawkeye, Avengers, Ms. Marvel, Rocket Raccoon, and Iron Fist — and cover as many different tones and interest groups as possible.

What I find most striking about these remarks is the hints they give of the many ways in which holism is being stretched, challenged, and potentially broken by the impact of horizontalism.

Holism and horizontalism have been closely allied at times in the past, first in the populist era of the late 1930s, when horizontalism and crime-fighting superheroes were both brand new, and then in the early 1970s, when comics underwent their first major surge of social consciousness. But the holism vision was younger then, and it wasn’t permanently altered by either of those encounters. It was free to turn to a purely cosmic orientation and leave the problems of Earth behind.

On the other hand, it seems to be a general rule that every vision relies on the vision one younger than itself to provide it with moral balance, and when it is cut off from that guidance it grows narrow and self-flattering. Holism fell into that pitfall some twenty-five years ago, when it ditched horizontalism to become fixated on its relationship with the dominant partnership. Since then, it’s become harder, darker, and ever more grimly pragmatic — and it’s badly in need of moral uplift.

This idea of moral uplift isn’t just a matter of “niceness.” There’s a great battle looming against the chaos vision, which has become even more isolated and self-justifying than holism. The diehard adherents of chaos — the libertarian billionaires and their purchased flacks and politicians — are growing increasingly arbitrary and despotic. They have the power of government, the police, and the corporations at their command. And the only level on which they are vulnerable is that of morality.

Horizontalism holds the moral high ground, but it can’t fight back against chaos on its own. The crushing of Occupy Wall Street proved that. It’s too new, too diffuse, too seemingly radical. Holism. on the other hand, has the worldly resources and public acceptance that horizontalism lacks — but ito be effective, holism needs to become as focused, self-aware, and internally pure as possible. And it can only do that by submitting to the guidance of horizontalism.

Of course, that submission won’t be accomplished without a struggle — which is already visible in the form of a raging controversy over issues of “social justice.” This is a term associated with horizontalism that is often used as a negative epithet by those who prefer their holism dark and broody and tinged with chaos. Many of them feel actively threatened by horizontalism and respond with particular fury to any suggestion that it’s counter-productive to treat women as sex objects.

Holism will inevitably submit in the end — because that’s the way the story goes. But the conflict will also leave a lot of loose ends and unresolved resentments that could come into play again when the chaos-and-holism partnership is formed and horizontalism is pushed aside. It’s all part of what keeps the cycle turning.

Read the Previous Entry: The Alchemical Marriage of Holism and Horizontalism
Read the Next Entry: Chaos Craps Out and a Thousand Flowers Bloom

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