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Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A couple readers, including one very long-time reader whom I respect very much, wrote in to say that they have noticed a change in my tone, especially with regard to Ken Wilber and my opinions expressed about him and his work. They sense a nastiness and need for me to get past my frustrations from past events. Of course I appreciate the time anyone takes to write me so I wanted to offer a to-the-point summary of, basically, where I'm at about Wilber. This may be of small interest to many of my readers, but in your case, you are probably wondering who the hell this guy Wilber is, anyway, so maybe this will give food to that. If not, regular programming resume tomorrow, with new music and probably some balls bouncing around like a lava lamp.

First off, there is a big distinction about what lands in my blog versus what lands in my papers, essays, and articles (and soon, my books). I have always made it clear that my blog is experimental space, for me to try out ideas, approaches, perspectives, all towards a unique multimedia voice, that includes but is not limited to the written word. Part of that imperative is to stir things up, be provocative, challenge as well as support, and be fearless about it all. (And not be irresponsible, of course, either). This goes for the comments I offer on others' blogs, which I usually post to my own, anyway. This ole blog thang has a life of its own, and I like it that way. (I hope you do, too. By the overall feedback, it seems like more of y'all do than don't.)

When I left Integral Institute, there was a real lack of any kind of public critical examination, professional and personal, about Ken Wilber by people who had been in his inner circle. I'll get into the I-I stuff in a second, but first, if you have to take what I blog about with a grain of salt, then by all means do so. Because, in truth, the percentage of overall verbiage posted on this blog that has anything directly to do with Wilber in any way is pretty small. That people notice it and call it out I appreciate (that they are reading) and it also says as much about them as it does about me. Which is to say nothing else than it is not a simple matter, but one that involves several factors, and far beyond the mere words I choose to use. And honestly, most of the time when I call Wilber "baldy" or "sri baldy", it is meant as a joke. Whether it is taken that way is another matter, I acknowledge.

So getting on with things...As I indicate in my bio, as well as in posts over the last two years, for 16 months I was associated with a startup think tank founded by Ken Wilber, called Integral Institute. I was asked, directly by Wilber during one of my visits to Boulder in the summer of 2003, and after I had submitted an early paper of mine to him for consideration, to be in charge of what he was calling the "art domain" of this university he wanted to start, called Integral University. I was honored and accepted, and I was surprised, because it all happened rather quickly and I didn't think Wilber was all the familiar with my work. It turns out (it was revealed to me later) that in fact he was familiar with it, beyond that one paper.

The months after that were spent doing one basic thing: writing. And of course researching in order to write (Hannah can attest to my ridiculous hours spent). While I had long written about this and that, including art philosophy, this was definitely the most-focused writing period since I graduated college (with an English and Creative Writing degree). I treated it as my own PhD program of sorts. And given the environment of others involved with Wilber's university project, I rather enjoyed things. I had a good time of it in discussion with many people, not the least of which was Matt Rentschler, also asked by Ken to be heavily involved with the art domain.

It was my understanding, though this was never once clarifed, that "art domain" was equivalent to "art college", and my position was something akin to, at the least, lead scholar, and at the most, something like a dean of a college, if you extend 'domain' into 'college', which to me seemed at least a workable way of looking at things. But, I can't stress enough, nothing was ever clarified, and if anything ever approached being clarified about what exactly we were doing, it quickly evaporated. It was rather a mess. I've written about the mess before, and how in my estimation, the integral university project was infected severely with philosophical groupthink. But that is just my opinion, and that of course includes me.

Anyway, after 16 months, hundreds of hours of conference calls, probably 10,000 emails, and a whole lot of stuff that would bore the pants off of anyone, I decided to resign. I'm not going to get into the why of that now (I already have to some extent, previously, and there really isn't a point to talk about it now). But I left, and I took all my work with me. Even though the inner ring of I-I attempted to claim co-ownership of my papers, and thus meaning I would have to ask permission to use them, I consulted with a real lawyer, and that was settled quickly, completely in my favor. That it left a bad taste in my already-bad-tasting mouth is probably self-evident.

While I parted ways completely with I-I, and did so as the lead scholar of integral art (which, regardless of what the titles given me actually meant, because that was in fact the case, empirically speaking), here is something I want to stress—I continued all of my work in integral art philosophy. In fact, my output doubled, I felt far freer to experiment without institutional control (in what, I maintain stringently, is an experimental field, that of 'integral art'), and all of what I developed before and during my time in Wilber's circle was amplified and given hearing through my website. Which continues to this day, and for the foreseeable future as far as I can tell. (Maybe after 7 years I'll hang up my philosopher hat in favor of full-time composer, since music is a better and less-offensive form of philosophy, anyway.)

So that takes me to now, and the particular things I want to say about Wilber, as far as my feelings towards him and his work go. I get a fair amount of flack about my handling of his work, and even my handling of him, the person, as far as I know him. So I'm going to try to express where I'm at.

So let me start this way. In Wilber, I have never met a more brilliant person. I have also never met a more self-absorbed person. Perhaps the two go hand in hand, and I'm open to that necessity. He did, after all, write the book on "boomeritis" as well as the book on "integral psychology". And I am quite sympathetic to the defenses a person has to install in order to enact any kind of change in the world, even those defenses that, to some, seem extraordinarily off-putting and mean. And I'm quite sympathetic to frustrations of dealing with New Age mentality, because it is at worst infuriorating, and at best, infuriorating. I'm actually sympathetic to quite a bit about Wilber, including the need to be inflammatory once in a while in order to stir things up from natural inertia.

Additionally, I think his work is often useful, but less so since his book The Eye of Spirit. Since then, he has espoused (sometimes subtlely, sometimes not) a hero journey of sorts, in a journey of his own making. He is the hero. Marriage of Sense and Soul is perhaps the most blatant, but it is also in SES. To the extent there is propaganda in his recent work, it has to do with this hero thang, and creating enemies where he hasn't demonstrated clearly that there is one. That, and you know, the messiah of integral consciousness is coming.

That said (there is more to say, but that is the overall cut of it), all of his books contain ideas, soundbytes, and commentary on certain matters that are truly inspired and insightful. An arcane example is the essay from Collected Works IV about an integration of transactional analysis and gestalt therapy. It blew my mind, and far more useful than you'd expect from a typical philosopher (which is a notoriously unpractical and unuseful position to be in). Some of his descriptions of basic meditation practice helped support my own, and his capacity to spot nihilism within certain strains of academia and culture are, if not original to him, originally re-framed by him. The five elements of his newest system - "AQAL" - are useful touchstones for a discussion about, well, a lot of things (not everything). And he brings a certain moxie to philosophy and discussions of current events that have a lot of charisma about them, and thus inspire to a certain extent.

The great error of Wilber is three-fold, as I can currently see it. I'll take them in order, though each are related.

One is that, for practical purposes, it is quite clear that, contrary to his supposed premise, everyone is not right. Wilber's is a political statement, not one based in philosophy or the search for truth through real discourse and real distinctions. He basically granted truth, or partial truth, to everybody and I don't see how that is really helpful to distinctions we must make in order to better understand the world and ourselves. How does this wholesale assertion of truth function better than traditional, informed, dignified debate, where arguments are presented (arguments based upon knowledge and research) and the results of the exchange considered by all present to hear it? That there are shades of grey in our understanding of truth was settled in antiquity. If he is making a back-handed claim that truth can come from anywhere, that is something I might accept, depending upon the argument. But that is the difference between deducing truth, and merely presupposing truth. Truth could come from anywhere, but that is a far cry from assuming beforehand that it does. Wilber's premise (a version of the latter) sounds nice, and it doesn't offend, but it also isn't at all clear how it forwards the pursuit of truth as best we can unearth it.

To say that everyone is right brings fog when it is clarity we need, and the clarity of distinction that includes, even in simple terms, right and wrong. Everyone is not right. Some people are quite wrong sometimes. And that goes for everyone, myself and Wilber included. Pluralism means we are open to truths from new sources, outside of our strict cultural traditions; it doesn't mean we simply grant others as having a claim to truth without debate and dignified back and forth. And as that happens, it is quite moral to, compassionately, but forcefully, show and tell someone that they are wrong on a certain thing.

And then there is the issue of who exactly Wilber is arguing against. I don't see a debate on this issue, but I might have missed it. If someone has persuasively argued that, in fact, "so and so" is 100% wrong, then perhaps Wilber's premise that no one is capable of 100% error would mean something. Lacking such an argument, and lacking such a person making that argument, Wilber's ends up being a distinction without a difference; an enemy created out of need to demonstrate an pursue an argument. That this premise, and its more particular versions, nonetheless please many a reader is why I consider it a political statement. But I find "everyone is right" to be a largely useless notion, and in any case, irrelevent to the task of thinking, being, and doing with fullness.

Two is that too often it is not clear from what context Wilber speaks. Chomsky has this same problem. Wilber's own philosophy says that truth is context-bound, always and everytime. Well, for example, what is the context of his famous four quadrants? What is the occassion that these four perspectives, by his own design, illuminate? On what ground does one stand to see, by turns, the four spectrums installed in this famous diagram? What are these four sides of? I ask because I see no discernible context (outside of "evolution" or "consciousness", or "the big bang", all of which it would be absurd and impossible to prove possible to "map") and thus, less and less I see truth in his four quadrants. This is no small thing. This is the cornerstone of his work. (I instead use the quadrants as a general "concept" in ways that Wilber hints at, but in my estimation, doesn't really explore in any meaningful way, and suffers as a result.)

Another example is his acceptance of what he calls the "Two Truths Doctrine"; that there is both absolute truth as well as relative truth. There is truth about form and formal awareness (this is relative) and there is truth about formlessness and emptiness (this is absolute truth). Again, what is the context or stance one adopts in order to make this claim? As a long-time meditator, I am quite sympathetic to discussions about formless awareness (in all its semiotic varieties) and meditative awareness in general. But I stress, discussions. Assertions of truth of any scale beyond the intuitive is far more than a slippery slope to meaninglessness—it is straight down. People can usefully talk about meditative awareness and get something out of the discussion, but to assert a "Two Truths Doctrine" lacks necessary context, required to anchor the truth in something. This is not to dismiss the practice meditation, and what it offers, but it is argue against the inflation of its perceptive space into something beyond its own britches.

(By the way, let me be also clear that I am not holding myself up to Wilber as his equal. I am not. He has done far more work than I and I have a long way to go to earn the right for my output to be compared to his. I don't have pretensions about this, in case you wondered. All I can say is that I am writing philosophy, the real fruits of this labor will become evident in the near future. I know I am commited to it fully.)

Three is that Wilber is notoriously superficial about various fields of thought, and notoriously prone to collapse of various fields into some "meta stance" that is, in practice, an escape hatch from actually dealing with the issues of a particular field. This is a long-held criticism by many, so I encourage others to explore these criticisms. You might start with Geoffrey Falk, and wade through the ad hominem, because there is a lot of real substance to his criticisms, the presence of disruptive fog completely stipulated. (And here is a test of one's ability to find truths from anywhere.) There are other critics, of course, that are not hard to find. My advice is to ditch the retort that their criticisms are "nitpicking" and really dig into the specific points/contexts their pieces of critique address. Critique is a necessarily limited endeavor, because it, more than philosophy, is grounded in logic and traditional argument.

My problem here is that, as I have witnessed in my close tabs on basically everything going on publically in the world of Wilber and the integral blogosphere (as well as behind the scenes while with I-I), is the growth of superficial thinking about matters of the world. Contexts are smashed together and collapsed. Entire fields of thought are skimmed over. As an example, "worldview philosophy" is treated like a set of labels, whereas it is actually a far deeper and nuanced field of thought, and far more controversial than Wilber fans generally think (from what I can tell, anyway). Wilber's work seems to foster the quick answer to everything. Part of that is simply being in an intellectual field, and thus by nature being prone to rationalizing and over-rationalizing everything. The intellectual can talk himself or herself into or out of anything. Skimming is the order of the day with Wilber's layfolk fans. Skimming articles, criticisms, and even his work. Since Wilber skims, that makes a kind of sense, though I think people ought be able to say to themselves, "am I really retaining what I just skimmed?" and "am I really qualified to offer judgment based on a mere skim of the material?"

But part of it, the bigger part, is that, given what I believe is a choice on the part of Wilber to create a language around his work (as well as a community, network of websites, think tank, university, and Hollywood buzz, and perhaps even a spiritual house of worship), a person can easily just substitute in stock ideas of Wilberian philosophy to almost any situation. It becomes an "In-crowd" jargon of the knowing, much like a gang, fraternity, or even a cult. Got a problem? Meditate. Feel uninspired? Start an "integral practice". Angered with things in culture? Must be the vMeme involved. Stuck for solutions, think integral and change will come. Wondering about an application of integral? Just ask "What would an integral __________ look like?" (Can't tell you how many friggin times I've read a version of that question). And people just repeat Wilber's words all the time, shallowed whole, without any questioning of the assumptions that his views are really correct. People in his inner-most circle even copy the way he talks and the way he writes. "Simply put" is about to be put out of style because of him. I can't even shake the fucking words, and I've tried like you wouldn't believe.

And, perhaps most deviously, there is the inclination, fully supported by Wilber's own public statements, that people, everyday people who read Wilber's work, are somehow now equipped with the tools of psychology and can assess the "psychograph" of people around them, or even people in far off lands, or in public office. Don't believe me? Just read Wilber's old Shambhala forum or his newer Integral Naked. Both shows that pop psychology is in full effect for fans of Wilber. It's "shadow" this, "underlying motive" that, "level of consciousness" him, "real, real level of consciousness" her. Even Wilber, not trained in psychology, pronounces psychographs as easily as he pronounces, coughs, and speed-talks. He assesses people from a distance, even people who are dead.

All of which is to conclude that saying that everyone is right, and trying to create a language around your work, is the recipe for superficial thinking. And that is precisely what the world does not need right now. The world needs humility, careful consideration, useful contemplation and action, and efficient innovation through involved research. And the world needs fresh ideas, aimed to help the world and not their creator's model. The world needs a lot of things, but it certainly needs these things.

I think integral is more than that. I think it is more than superficial renderings of fields and domains of thought that others devote their lives to studying. It is more than assessing the tone and shadows of others. It is more than creating straw man political, academic, and cultural figures. It is more than cozying up with Hollywood celebrities. It is more than agreeing with everyone. It is more than creating self-serving institutions around speculation. It is more than finding political reasons to showcase people. It is more than using them for selfish gain in the name of revolution and once in a lifetime opportunity.

Integral is something I firmly believe in, but have been profoundly disappointed in its public (that is to say, online presentation) outside of the people I regularly link to on my blog, and a couple others. It sounds like a silly, self-involved game that certain people play. It sounds like people full of themselves, proud of being able to call you and themselves an asshole (ooh, that is profundity). It sounds like people who just can't stop talking about themselves, and all their goddamn subpersonalities, and subdramas in sub-pop. It sounds like people out of touch with both the real world and out of touch with regular, non-jargon modes of communication. It sounds like people just repeating verbatim the pronouncements of its central author. It sounds like people who never question the assumptions and pronouncements in Wilber's work. It sounds like people thinking skin-deep, except when it comes to meditation, which is the solution to end all solutions. It sounds like people who believe that their contemplative practice allows them instant authority to speak on almost any issue or question. For those reasons, integral can sound a lot like a cult, in the negative sense of the term.

Integral is more than that. Integral is a worldview, with semiotics that go far deeper than quadrants, levels, lines, states, or types. It comes not from a philosopher, just like pluralism didn't come from a philosopher, nor rationalism, mythicism, magicism, or survivalism. Integral is already out there in the world, and has been for decades. Anyone who thinks with more than one perspective, but doesn't get caught in analysis paralysis, is for all intents and purposes thinking and living integrally. Anyone who can learn from any source is learning integrally. Anyone who makes things that works on various planes of meaning and response is making things integrallly. Anyone who perceives in the world several ways of looking at something is perceiving integrally.

Integral is not a magic potion. It is not a spell we weave. It is not something, like rain in a drought, that we need to make dances for. It is not something any of us can control. The world requires that we look at it with many lenses.

How could we not, with levels of wealth, levels of technology, levels of government control, levels of intelligence clearly demonstrable in every newspaper. How could it not, with various dispositions to stimuli, different methods to accomplish tasks, different kinds of thinking that permeate our every freakin day? This is not rocket science for a philosopher to assert there are more perspectives in the world than two or three. It is not rocket science to see that the world is integral without a startup institution in a suburb of Denver, Colorado, saying so. It is not rocket science to see that thinkers and philosophers have been using the term "integral" for over a hundred years, to describe the basic idea that goes back to at least Plato—that of simple, but comprehensive, whole living.

Integral is something better considered, forgotten about, then considered again at a later date. And then repeated all again and again until there is no reason to read about integral when integral has penetrated your bones and guts. The point is to learn and burn. And then it is to jump on the back of intuition and let it guide you through whatever you are doing in your life.

Integral, in other words, is something that is far different than Ken Wilber's espousal of it. It is not something you pay $3000 to be absorbed within when the meat of it lies everywhere, in places that don't require or even want a new language, jargon, or created code. It is not everywherein the world, but it is already here. And it is not something you create a university around, for the same reason that we did not create a university around pluralism, around rationalism, or any other worldview. We create universities for the purposes of high level debate and consideration. We don't create it to instill a philosopher's place in history.

What I'd like is simple (it won't happen, but my ideal is this). I'd like Wilber to continue to write books and leave it at that. That is what he is best at. He has brought change into the world through his books and books alone. I'd like him to slow down, stop repeating himself, stop repeating his damn model in each and every book and essay, stop falling back on "spirit" as a way to talk about depth. None of this used to be an issue, until he started trying to prove, prove, and reprove his model all the time, without significant alterations in each iteration.

If it is not already clear, I used to respect him. I used respect his work. He wasn't one of my heroes, per se, but my view of him wasn't altogether different than that of a hero. He was definitely someone I was awed by, and was very eager to meet and very grateful to have opportunity to talk one on one with, as we did on a couple occasions. I used to tell all of my friends about it. I told it with pride. But I haven't told a single person about Wilber in over two years. No recommendations, no "hey, check this out", no "you gotta read this". And trust me, I'm the sort of chap who loves to rave about things, and love to rave about what I'm reading.

Even though I was personally insulted/offended by Wilber, and even though I haven't recommended him to others in a long time, I still think that he has deep insight to offer, expressed in his books and through considered writing, not hyper-pumped out writing. I think there is still, well, good in him. Take that for the obvious implication and reference.

Integral is a World View, not a commodity, secret, cult, or object for self-gratification. A. World. View. In other words, it is the air we breathe when we engage the world on its own terms, with our senses open. Nothing more, nothing less. It is not a journey we need to join, an adventure we have to sign on for. We are already on it, and it is where we are going whether we like it or not.

So I can say that I am now done with this part of my history/relationship with Wilber. He will still come up in my writing of art philosophy, but it will primarily be in order to give context, example through negation, or alternative view.

Consider this a formal declaration. I am officially interested in a "post-Wilber integral", the particular focus of which is the field of art. Peace be to all of you, and to all of you a very good night. It is 4 am. I gotta go to work in 4 hours, on a train into Chicago. Time for sleep. So, can I get an "oy"?
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