Boomeritis or Bust…

We finally located and bought a copy of Boomeritis, Ken Wilber's latest: Yankee Doodle Dandy-fied eastern philosophy meets postmodernist social criticism and more. Reading more like Bootie-ism than Buddhism, the “novel” is set up around Spiral Dynamics® which Wilber exploits to go after things he doesn't like in contemporary culture and to justify the things he does with contrived theoretical support. By putting his words into the mouths of characters this time, there's plausible deniability throughout. With usual immodesty, the promotion-savvy Wilber, newly-converted missionary for the Second Tier, sets up his thinly veiled cohorts and their "integral" institutions as the solution to what he sees as a spiral-stopping malaise – the supposed dead-end at the sixth level of human existence – the dreaded and fuzz-filled Boomeritis. He proposes an 'integral' workaround to locate the truth that's MIA in the relativism/subjectivism wars, complete with treatments for the egocentric, narcissistic postmodern syndrome he’s incubating. 

Apparently he caught the virus while writing Boomeritis. The clearest symptom? Toward the end he actually claims he's written a bad book intentionally. OK, that's an understatement. Actually, it is awful. In a smirking self-exculpatory way, Wilber suggests that it was all meant to be pretentious, repetitive and shallow as an illustration of the ills that have come into the world since Derrida (rather than Pandora) opened the postmodern box of evil uncertainties. His apologia proposes that it was planned to be a mess of inept prose, egocentric and shallow dialogue, misapplication and sloppy interpretation of others' work, annoying and puerile sexual fantasies set off in Homer Simpson "D'oh!" boldface, and everything else that is, in his view, wrong with ‘postmodernism.’ On those fronts he succeeds admirably.

Wilber, by imagineering a sound-alike pack of authoritarian stage-bound teachers, obviously wanted Boomeritis to be instructive for the Gen X/Y crowd. He would have done well to get more feedback from them and listen to it before allowing this embarrassment to go to print. Editors, where art thou? Shambhala legal department, where art thou? Friends of Ken, where were you? Much of it reads like the fantasies of a preachy refugee from Pleasantville enroute through beatnik to hippie to the consciousness confessional, but not much in tune with the far more complex-thinking and problems of young people today. But wait. Of course. That, too, was part of his grand plan to reach down for the coolness of absolute mediocrity all along. How utterly with it!

The dialogue is forced and the character development - what character development? - is flatlander as a pancake - and cliché, to boot. It repeats over-used materials time and again. Of course, that repetitive redundancy illustrates another point about Boomeritis and postmodernism, doesn't it? Thus, what we have here is what Wilber seems most comfortable with - self-reflexive meditations on the mirrored ceiling of his consciousness - and yet another protracted interview by Ken Wilber with Ken Wilber about Ken Wilber - a portrait of the narcissist as a young man. 

Besides the often annoying style and very unWilber-like absence of either notes or responsible citation of materials he's copied (readers are instead  referred to his website for the save-a-tree concordance), the principle reason we find Boomeritis troubling is simply this: he does a consummately lousy job with Spiral Dynamics®, again. He’s dead wrong as often as not about the little bit of theory that he includes which is not typology, and even that is distorted. Boomeritis is full of revisionist theory, bias, and presumption. As far as Graves/SD is concerned, it’s a pitiful waste of good paper and a great mind.

Because Wilber tries to apply but doesn’t actually understand Gravesian theory, he confuses the levels/colors like a novice. He doesn’t know Green from Orange or Yellow. Thus, the elaborate arguments he lays out are constructed on quicksand because he fails to recognize the essential nature of the eight nodal states, much less the transitional phases which are actually what he’s often trying to describe, or the forces that energize any of them. By bollixing up these fundamentals, many of the well-reasoned and potentially useful discussions begin with false premises, so the conclusions point to the wrong place. He's bombing the wrong targets brilliantly. And because he sounds authoritative, newcomers to SD will believe they're getting a valid overview of Graves/SD from Boomeritis. Quite the contrary – they’ll have been led down a rabbit trail into a labyrinth of all quadrant, all level nonsense. For the people who really know the Gravesian theory, reading it is a cringe a minute.

Elements of F-S (Green) are attributed to the hyped-and-mighty Second Tier – the second loop through the six basic Gravesian themes. It is not the two-step short cut to godliness and salvation-revisited that Wilber so desires; and no, Coral is not the portal to the third tier and life eternal with God and her silicates. That's a very different spiral. Frequently confusing E-R (Orange), F-S (Green), and A’-N’ (Yellow) he lays claim to “the good stuff” from each, especially F-S!, and promotes that to “Integral” status. Much of E-R (Orange) is framed as “mean Green” drawing on E-R’s individualism, autonomy-seeking, and right-thinking express-self perspective - not Green at all. Then he tries to drag in C-P (Red) as if anger, indignant emotion, and aggressiveness somehow reside mostly there. The cyclical aspect of the theory is ignored, and he dismisses the double-helix and concentrates on categories. When he pulls in other developmental/emergent theorists to lend support, he sticks them at the wrong places on the SD model. In the confusion of  hunting down his enemies, Wilber has misidentified what he wants so much to expose and transform. Boomer -it -is: sometimes nearly poignant, sometimes very scary; but at all times making a mess of the theory.

For some reason, Wilber still insists on calling virtually anything a "meme," thereby befuddling both himself and the reader. He apparently fails to recognize that his own promotion of a "mean Green meme" [sic] is the spreading of a meme about a vMeme, just as his Boomeritis is a meme integrating a hodgepodge of vMemes' traits. The Typhoid Mary of Cerebral Boomeritis doesn't appear to care very much about accuracy in language, but then that's just a symptom of pluralistic relativism, egocentrism, and postmodernism in the virus he's spreading, isn't it?

Maybe the propensity to lift others' work in ways that verge nigh unto plagiarism and then to misinterpret outrageously and high-handedly after doing so is another of the postmodernist traits Wilber intends to spoof. Perhaps he does understand SD quite well and is just pretending a shallow, distorted view - a slick writer trying to be instructive by modeling his points instead of one with a chronic blind spot and a wide-reaching but fundamentally made-up mind. If that's the case, he's accomplished his goal, though not very ethically. 

However, the theoretical blunders are carried over from his previous renditions, not new with this one. Thus, his butchery of the SD theory and rudimentary confusion about the nature of the levels of psychological existence (vMemes) is a chronic condition that his “integral” cures seem unable to remedy. The bastardized version in Boomeritis will mislead the novice and both surprise and offend those who know the model from other than the Wilberian skew. What a waste.

No doubt this very criticism will be turned as an argument against the critic: "Aha! A typical first tier Boomeritis victim who just doesn't get it - point made. Told you so. See? Humorless. Gotcha'! Only some closet deconstructionist infested with Boomeritis wouldn't appreciate this brilliant classic of revisionist re-construction - clueless and Blue-less. What's the problem? Hurt your feeeeeelings? Want to dialogue? Chill, dude. Booooooomer alert!" 

Actually that's been a darned clever strategy of Ken Wilber's for some time: 'anybody who doesn't like me is a mean Green; everyone who does is a Turquoise or better.' That works when dealing with people centered around D-Q/E-R (Blue > Orange) and looking to discover self at the feet of a righteous master, and others who believe that Green is human nature's anti-matter to Blue instead of a complement. It works with E-R/F-S (Orange > Green) minds lining up to join that exclusive "second tier" club – the mile-highers of the spirituality biz - definitely a winning tactic since they integrally make the Omega sign and sing in lockstep: “Hello, logos, here I come, right back where I started from!”

Much of the "integral" approach Wilber describes is expansion in the E-R to F-S transitional zone with some rah-rah religious zeal from D-Q/e-r thrown in for good measure. Much of the frustration given voice in Boomeritis could well be an expression of inability to make the step to F-S from the E-R/f-s and e-r/F-S states - hardly a lamentation upon looking back from “second tier,” of course. Some expresses the guilt and needs of mortality-driven D-Q (Blue) in a sad and almost desperate call to "grow" and be beyond self, to build a legacy, and to glow in cosmic consciousness.

There is nothing wrong in that – tens of millions of people are in the Orange-Green transition and need guidance and hunger for gurus to teach transcendence. It might even come from seeing evidence of the more elaborated systems from within the D-Q/E-R zone and believing that Green, rather than a necessary and neutral stepping stone on the path to further emergence, is a boulder blocking the way to progress, to perfect enlightenment, to a fulfilled selfless self. It’s hard to tell; so much is mushed together in the Wilberian blender that it all comes out Bass-O-Matic brown. (Boomer humor.)

To wrap this up, the book recognizes its awfulness and seems to hope the reader will stick around long enough to get the 450 page joke. 'Hear that laugh track, folks? Nyuk, nyuk…' Devoted Wilber fans will; and people recovering from multiple fractures in full body casts just might. Boomeritis does offer its share of interesting insights; Ken Wilber is no fool. That's the tragedy of it. And his normally soporific prose is mercifully broken up with attempts at dialogue and interspersed with some keen social observations and occasional laughs wrapped up in the usual Greekish words and philosophical mini-treatises that sound impressive as hell. What he sees in today's world is noteworthy and often rings familiar. His reach is wide and he remarks on many foibles and possibilities in modern times. Debate his opinions, his politics, his bigotries, his competitive consciousness, and his conclusions; but give him due credit for breadth.

Depth is where he loses it. From an SD perspective, Wilber still fails to relate all of these observations accurately to the model he uses as a centerpiece. Since his take on SD theory is so far off base, everything else becomes suspect, especially the insultant's heavy-handed lessons for Green and the glorification of a second tier he frames as separate from the first. That's our recurring frustration - all that brilliance missing the mark so badly. To use language typical of Boomeritis: If he wants to fuck with something, let him fuck with himself and his own integral shit. If he's going to keep exploiting SD/Graves to serve his own ends and support his claims, why not do it right so his writing adds constructively to the body of knowledge instead of promoting the SD name on one hand while undermining the essence of the theory shamelessly with the other? Maybe he honestly doesn't understand the difference; and maybe he just doesn't give a damn.

There is absolutely no doubt that Wilber cultists and those waiting with tickets in hand for a ride on the train to the land of consciousness-chic and a reserved seat at 'third way, Second Tier' will climb aboard and find Boomeritis inspirational, empowering, and revelatory - "we are the champions of the world - toot, toot. Next stop, Third Tier. All aboard!" Those 'Green swamp' dwellers and others without the delusions of second or third tierrany and who worry about schemes by elite crowds devoted to reforming the world on their own authoritarian, self-righteous more-conscious-than-thou terms will, as the engineer acknowledges, be derailed by this book early on. They're the lucky ones because the concluding section is a train wreck.

Boomeritis-infected critics (who know or care nothing about SD) might well buy into Wilber's argument that he's created a brilliant postmodern anti-novel rather than cleverly rationalized an unholy mess. Readers who expect even satire to be competently structured and written in a way that amuses through subtle wit rather than sledge-hammer blows to the genitals will find it a dreary go. Those in search of another philosophical compilation that skims over vast domains will not be disappointed; Ken Wilber is an impressive synthesizer. 

Anyone who knows Spiral Dynamics or understands Dr. Graves' work will find the theory applications at first old hat, then laughable, then bizarre and embarrassing, and finally irritating and uncomfortable - not because they hit so close to home, but because they stray so far from it. In that respect Wilber’s great postmodern parody of a novel backfires – the supposedly deliberate fuck-up actually does fuck up the theory so badly that the joke becomes a reflexive satire of itself – the joke is on the jokester - but you only get the big one if you know the model well. 

Wilber's meta-postmodern strategy appears to be: baffle them with bullshit and convince them they're ignorant fools – or anti-integral - if they say it smells other than sweet. It worked for the emperor with the new clothes; the crowd cheered his nakedness and believed something was wrong with themselves because they couldn’t see the nothing there until an honest kid spoke up and broke the trance. 

Maybe the long-running strategy will continue to serve the Bodhisattva of Boomeritis as his speed-reading imagination swings naked on a chandelier, too, though anyone who actually knows the Graves theory and SD will see his bare butt hanging out after trudging through this "novel" exercise in male/female integration. Bottom line: it ain’t pretty.

But then, the whole thing was just a cosmic dream…nyuk.

- Chris Cowan, 8/24/02

Copyright 2002 NVC Consulting