“Everything that Rises…” Or Synthetic Thought, Florilegium and the Networked Age: ITC 2013
by Jeremy Johnson
I’m fast approaching my 5 A.M. flight on July 17th. The night before will likely consist of a heavy 9 P.M. dose of melatonin and meditation-unto-sleep. I had come up with a few clever titles and openings to my pre-conference blog, but, I think I’ll stick to the honest basics. Let’s start where I am: enthralled heartbeat, sweaty palms, swooning contemplation about what happens when you put more than one integral meta-theory practitioner in a room. Yes, this year’s theme is certainly “meta” (see urban dictionary for a proper definition). First thing’s first: this conference is hosted by proponents of a theoretical and philosophical system of “orienting generalizations,” a veritable theory of everything—Integral Theory, originally developed by American philosopher Ken Wilber. Next, we have Edgar Morin, a French sociologist and “integral” thinker in his own right, author of Homeland Earth and the developer of what he calls “complex thought.” Lastly we have Roy Bhaskar, the founder of the school of Critical Realism. Sean Esbjorn-Hargens, author of Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World and conference organizer, will be speaking on behalf of Integral Theory. So let’s talk about context.
Each of these scholars claim to some degree that the human race is at the precipice of some major event—a global crisis at the edge (or some say, end) of history—where we need to bring our disparate modalities of thinking and being-in-the-world together. The notion of a “cosmopolitan,” according to Webster dictionary, means having a “worldwide rather than limited or provincial scope or bearing.” Now add the “K” to “Kosmopolitan,” and we’ve remixed it with the old Greek word, “Kosmos” which Wilber was so fond of in his seminal book, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution.“Kosmos” originally meant “the universe” or “the starry firmament,” but went on to include our planet and all its denizens. While it’s certainly meant to be a play of meaning, I think it’s relevant to the meat and bones of this conference.
“Kosmopolitan” implies that the desire to look out at that starry abode is something we’ve inherited as a species. That no single theory really owns this impulse, any more than any religion truly holds captive the sense of the sacred. That East, West, Europe, America, and every nation and tribe has drawn constellations of synthesis into (perhaps, out from) the heavenly firmament. This is the “Integral Kosmopolitan.” A movement with no center, no periphery: articulated by all but owned by none. Integral thought—if there really is such a thing—is in fact a larger “epistemic impulse” as Trevor Malkinson articulates in his excellent essay, “The Rise of the Synthesizing Mind in the Planetary Age.” As we come into an awareness of planetary issues and human interdependence with the rest of the biosphere—so too do our “meta” theories gain the robustness of discovering they are co-initiators of planetary culture.
Jean Gebser—of whom I am a deep reader of his phenomenal text, The Ever-Present Origin—came to a similar realization after publishing the first installment of his tome, only to discover that in India, Sri Aurobindo had been writing and working on his own version of “integral consciousness” in The Life Divine.
Now, I am inclined to believe that a healthy embodiment of this integral impulse isn’t interested in assimilating another’s work, which I think degrades and diminishes the integrity of fellow authors and scholars, but instead, attempts to realize a form of “synthesis” that is more decentralized as its primary characteristic. As Trevor writes in his article, “what frustrates me… is that talk of integral or integrative thinking is often reduced—by adherents and critics alike—to simply being about the work of Ken Wilber.” Over the past few years, I think the Integral Theory community has gradually recognized this criticism, as Sean writes over at MetaIntegral: “Our approach recognizes that Integral Theory is not as integral as it could be, and so we continually strive to make Integral Theory more integral through respectful inquiry and debate with other streams of integrative thought.”
This is why I am eagerly anticipating the conversations in the conference halls as three autonomous theories—Critical Realism, Complexity Thinking, and Integral Theory—mesh and mate, exchange their memetic material and show up in a couple of months with a mutant baby or two. Yeah, something like that.
The biological metaphors actually come close to what I am trying to say about this synthetic drive, this “epistemic impulse” that belongs to our age. In our time of complex networks in perpetual communication, hermeneutics become a key player (and thus, Hermes, the god of the crossroads and communication, is now found frolicking about cyberspace). We move from text to hyper-text. Provincial to “meta” realities. But this in no way gives free reign to singular meta-theories, as I believe proponents of Integral Theory are now realizing. In this reality (or better yet, hyper-reality), no singular theory proves useful (and in fact, singular theories might prove violent—a closing up of consciousness and its potential to respond at a planetary level). In a networked age, ideas are meant to have sex. They’re meant to go out there and mingle with other ideas. The whole point of the Kosmopolitan is to connect the dots: discover connections, form bricoleur patterns of synthetic meaning, discover gods dancing in the outer constellations of earthly incarnation and the hidden stars within us.
The egoic head of industrial civilization has come to a crashing, and some might say traumatic, decapitation. In its wake, there is no more center and periphery, what Wilber coins (and borrows a bit from Gebser) “a-perspectival” madness. If you follow this madness deep enough down into the rabbit hole, you end up with what Maria Popova of Brain Pickings describes as “combinatorial creativity in the networked age.”
“This is what I want to talk about… networked knowledge, like dot-connecting of the florilegium, and combinatorial creativity… The idea that in order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these pieces and build new castles.”
The florilegium literally means “a gathering of flowers,” and it was used in context of medieval monks who literally created “mashups” of their religious texts. I contend that the real strength of integral thought is this very quality of interlinking creativity (also, I suggest that Wilber’s works themselves are examples of modern-day florilegium, since he has acknowledged that he didn’t necessarily create new ideas, but found a way for them to fit together). And, like Trevor, Maria Popova argues that the idea is already dispersed across disciplines. Take Roger Sperry, a neuropsychologist from the 1960’s, who writes: “ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains.” Now those brains are not so foreign. We’ll have a few of them together in San Francisco Bay on the 18th.
If you widen your horizons to include the “combinatorial creativity” of digital culture, you start to see manifestations of “integral” just about everywhere. In audio, visual and other(you want to click this. Do it do it do it) creative remixes around the globe (think of the concept of DJ’s and extend that to NJ’s: net jockeys. I guess integral, or idea synthesizing can be dubbed: IJ’s). This, too, my friends, is the “Integral Kosmopolitan” we have to connect to and recognize. Boot up, log on and join the network. And this is, I believe, the way integral meta-theories and gain their relevancy in our age. They literally become exhalations of combinatorial creativity, the gatherings of thought and synthesis into unique concretions.
So let’s bring our theories together in these gatherings—florilegium—of thought and complexity. It is precisely this kind of thinking that is already becoming enacted the world over, and that, I believe, “integral” theories (plural, plural!) of mind have a unique excellence articulating. Just don’t get too hooked on your meta-theory (Meta-theories, like egos, are meant to be porous. A good theory leaks… Yup, that’s my motto now). Remember, we’re here to mingle.
Back to the present moment: my palms are still sweaty and my heart is still racing. Only now I am coming down from the near altered state I entered while writing about this Kosmopolitan—what might be possible by our encounter: the hidden potentiate of our age, a slumbering serpent resting at the base. My chest is light. Nerves are tingling out into this electric ecstasy of light and sound I have dreamt of in this session. I have pounded away at the keyboard for nearly two hours now. It’s 1:30 in the morning, and the conference is only 9 days away. I look forward to meeting all of you.