What “holistic” means, or may mean

The contour of meaning isn’t always, or even often, something you can pleasurably run your hand along. The dynamics of meaning, as encoded in language, are not unlike the dynamics of water in a beaker: variations in the combination of pressure and temperature drive state-changes that range from gas, to solid, to liquid.

Academia is an environment unto itself; it applies its own peculiar set of forces, and advances its own particular ends when it operates on the meaning that’s encoded in language.

For a reproductive biologist, the concept of altruism is (by way of my tortured analogy) akin to ice; while for a political scientist, that word and its connotations are more akin to steam.

Specialists with orthogonal ontologies utilize often-identical taxonomies toward conclusions that seemingly invite — but in fact subvert — collaboration and understanding. Biological science people. Social science people. Hard and soft sciences. Where I teach, these worlds are as separated conceptually as they are spatially. Birds of a feather flock together, separately. Go blue!

I felt something akin to what a political scientist in a reproductive biology lab might feel like on National Altruism Day not too long ago, while serving on the thesis committee for one of my students at the University of Michigan. It happened in an art studio, which I believe is a kind of laboratory.

The student in question, Clara McClenon, was pursuing dual degrees in fine art and information science, and in a meeting of her thesis team at the studio building, I heard one of the other advisors use a word in description of Clara’s drawings that I’d never heard (or read, or seen used) before. The texture of this word, and its meaning, was arresting to me.

From the show Farther Along by Clara McClenon


The person who used this word is a brilliant scholar and teacher, who knows a lot about early Modern european art, and who writes about perception and artistic technique. I had to stop her when she said it, and she clarified:

Coloristic means that Clara is able to achieve some of the perceptual effects of color, but isn’t actually using color. She’s bending the constraints of the medium to get more out of achromatic marks on paper than what charcoal and pencil more typically afford to an artist.

Coloristic is not using color.

In Clara’s drawings for this show, she’s doing the opposite of what Louis Kahn did in his sketchbooks, rendering shadows in purples, and reds, and greens. He couldn’t do them coloristically. He said that darkness belongs to, and is made from the light.

I wish that you could see Clara’s work in person. Kahn’s sketchbook paintings, too, for that matter: I’m fortunate in the extreme to have seen both. The photos do neither’s work justice.

Even so, imagine a few more pictures with me? These will be moving pictures:

The camera makes a jump cut from the spaciousness and natural light of the graduate students’ art studio in Ann Arbor, Michigan to a smallish conference room in Secaucus, New Jersey.

Fluorescent light. Spent k-cups accumulate in an adjacent galley kitchen. A triumvirate of VPs are being primed to serve as stakeholders for a new product development effort, and a designer tells them about the principles that will guide the work that follows. As the principles are enumerated, the designer switches markers and puts an orange circle around the word “holistic.”

Pause the film for a moment: what did the designer mean when they said what they said?

In my view — pedantic for sure — “holistic” in this scene means that the designer is able to talk about, promise and maybe even mimic some of the effects of wholeness, while not actually working in terms of wholeness.

Rewind the tape and watch it again: wholeness.

Are these people really working in ways that assign equal value and importance to what Eliel Saarinen called “the next larger context?” Or to the next smaller one, or the many adjacent ones, for that matter — as compared with the immediate, “thing you’re supposed to be working on right now” context?

“Holistic” is not using, or working in terms of, wholeness.

Resume playback.

The camera finds a clock on the opposite wall of the conference room, and slow zooms to blur while the hands start to spin counter-clockwise.

You get it? We’re going back in time.

Fort Worth, Texas: 1971. Local TV news helicopter footage of the Kimbell Museum under construction. Anchors at the studio back in Dallas voice over something about it looking like “cee-ment cattle barns” from the air.

Cut to a close-up on Kahn in signature bow tie and an orange hard hat at the job site, detailing the screws for the hand-rails.

Jump-cut to to group of construction workers, smoking cigarettes and shaking their heads in Kahn’s general direction. Close up on and interview with the foreman:

He’s over there talking about using a cap-head screw or a hex-nut screw…

Camera shifts to the man standing beside the foreman:

Kind of like a wife, he has a “good idea,” but at the wrong time. That might have been a good idea yesterday, but we’re not doing that part any more.
He’s just an artist, you know, and most artists don’t have any discipline. They just keep on going.

Dissolve into tracking shot focused on a handrail in the stairwell of Louis Kahn’s office on Walnut Street in Philadelphia. Close-up for a few seconds on Kahn’s hand running along the railing, and then pull back wide as his hand now leaves the railing as he breaks into a sprint: up, up past the next landing and out of frame.

Pretty spry, for a 70 year old. His office was 5 flights up.

Hounded by creditors, behind on project schedules and proposals and yet; there he is now: at his bench, building a model of what the ruin of the foundations of a building he’d not yet convinced his client to build would be like 300 years in the future.

Where do you think he accounted for that time on his timesheet?

Cut to an exterior shot from the corner of 5th and Walnut, looking up at one illuminated window on the 5th floor.

Fade to black.

As the credits roll and the film ends, I’d like to take note of two things:

  1. Clara McClenon is so accomplished in her art that she can make monochrome do stuff that most folks can only do with color. In the body of work for her MFA show called Farther Along, she was not going for color, but got some of its effects through extraordinary amounts of toil, combined with genius technique.
  2. Honestly, we are not so accomplished in our commercial design work milieu that we can make the lemons of atomized and componentized “design systems,” and the compartmentalized thinking and methods which birthed them, into the lemonade of wholeness.

Even with the requisite stakeholder buy-in, and budgets, and timelines to do so, the raw toil and personal sacrifice required to be working in terms of and deliver on the plain definition of wholeness isn’t something most of us know how to do, or how to lead our clients through.

I encourage you to watch My Architect, or read the story of Christopher Alexander building the Eishin School in Japan, and then re-ask the question: what does it take to be able to deliver the actual goods when it comes to wholeness in the kinds of work that we do, and in the spaces where our work is operative?

In the meantime, my waggy finger cautions you: I don’t think that word — holistic — means what many of you mean when you say it.

Whole-ish might be better.