Arriving at this part of the planet, in San Francisco, has been a thrill. So characteristic for this place is the spaciousness it offers to foster the beautiful emergence of all that is cutting-edge. As I am retiring from a long (two-year) field research trip to India, having the Bay Area as a follow-up destination feels meant-to-be. A stable factor throughout my dance of trotting the globe, my mind is focused on a PhD that I am writing as an employee of the Interdisciplinary Center Leo Apostel at Brussels Free University (Belgium). In and through this dissertation, I discuss the topic of bioethics – the inscription of a definition of brain death and the inscription of a practice of cadaveric organ transfer in particular – as it fleshes out in different areas of the culturally diverse country that is India. I made use of the integral framework when setting up my research methodology, in order to obtain data from a multitude of ‘zones’. Simultaneously, the complexity of the data gathered calls for a theoretical aid that gives breathing space to the wide spectrum of nuances that the data reveal, without trying to reduce this complexity to easy claims. In my thesis, I apply integral as a structure – yet, a structure that is flexible in shape and material as it dialectically holds an open space so that new insights can emerge out of the data. The relationship between data and structure is much like an ever temporary and contextualized stasis, as if both were part of a contact dance: the data mix with the structure, sometimes being ‘in’ it, sometimes offering new insights vis-à-vis the integral geometry, sometimes entering a dialogue with it, sometimes just being held as counterparts in an overarching dialectic that embraces both empirical data and theory, sometimes roaming and wandering off in search of an other theoretical grounding to dance with for some time. There are many stories that desire to be told and the integral frame arises as a structure in a vast emptiness that is full of possibility, asking from us to acknowledge both container and meshwork. All can be heard, recognized and … gently challenged as we spur the options for transcendence. It is much like a blow of wind brushing through the tales and unleashing the solid elements the narratives consist of; rearranging them. And then we look again. Wondering, wandering, getting lost; sometimes finding a new balance, sometimes just merrily remaining lost for some time. Sitting with the unknown can be relieving, since the ‘hooks’ of a story at times also ‘hang’ its creative energy. In similar ways, I have let the integral frame ‘off the hook.’ Playfully.
And yet, during my fieldwork – and throughout life - I was often recalled of Haraway’s citation of Lilith out of Butler’s Xenogenesis (Haraway, 1991): “I suppose I could think of this as fieldwork – but how the hell do I get out of the field?” In my thesis I managed to describe the complexities and intricacies that come with the application of technological innovations as they meet a vast variety of inter- and intra-cultural meanings. I gave an idea of how they spread ‘epidemiologically’ (Sperber, 1996) in a society, and in the process of doing so get flavoured by qualities that might remind one of a necessity to include developmental insights. Yet, in the midst of all this ‘empirical anthropology’, I wonder – not unlike many contemporaries - where the ‘study of the human being’ has gone, in which we as Western minds partake. As Stephen Jay Gould puts it eloquently, it remains a (the?) crucial question in human intellectual history to figure out what is the role and status of our own species in nature and the cosmos. And it is exactly this quest that called me to share an office with Sean Esbjörn-Hargens and Nick Hedlund-De Witt, two of the most skilled pioneers in the field of ‘universe exegesis’ that I can think of.
And so I travelled, in merry spirits, to now share an office with these beautiful, warm souls. As a volunteer at JFKU for the next three months, I welcome the integrally informed exchanges with eager, cherishing the gorgeous opportunity that life has offered me. I can see the earnest look in my both colleagues’ eyes as they are performing their many works of service - well aware that every minute is rich and valuable. At times someone walks into the office, and the call is answered with humble greetings. When help is needed, it is offered; in the Integral Studies department it is as simple as that. We are in this together, humanity’s collective version of Campbell’s Hero Quest. And so I am sensing how being here in the Bay Area is stretching me horizontally as well as vertically. I notice it in physical, emotional, mental, spiritual and interrelational muscles. They feel stiff as a result of the unusual exercise. The exercise is triggering me to integrate shadows that came up in the merky transition phase of arrival first. Then I dive deep into the possibilities of what I am called to do here, taking full responsibility to fulfil my part of this blessed cooperation.
For long I have been on the outlook to see the promising talks that foresaw an “integral anthropology” become materialized. However, I realized it has not quite emerged yet as I would have been fascinated to discover. Gradually I came to perceive a calling in my longing to see an integral anthropology arise. Maybe I could be part of this quest… And as Sean helped me see, yes o yes, anthropology is right there at the treshhold, bringing out its own versions of an integral consciousness. This emerging new phase in anthropology gives way to also bring out the perspective of an integral anthropology to this field. A profound conversation between these versions could arise from that and help us deepen our understanding of what it means to be ‘human’ in this universe. Building this integral anthropology, therefore, is what I will be working on during my stay here; a stay that I already know will be much too short. Yet, it will be eternal in many otherwise since the memory of every minute spent will be with me always, energizing all the work I will do from today onwards.
The challenge we are answering to, as we are building an integral anthropology in dialogue with the voices of newly emerging anthropological theories, is to lift anthropology out of the “swamp” of hyperrelativism that it has come to be associated with. Anthropologists have long been running from a historically induced and culturally summoned collective original sin that came with the painful memory of their origin and past. After all, anthropology as a discipline has always been a close ally of the project of colonization and religious crusades. Indeed, too close to be conscientiously comfortable. The original sin is exemplified in the guilt-driven dogmatic acceptance of the now secular opinion that regards the concept of evolution and even its less rigid counterpart of ‘growth’ as a heresy, namely to culture-sensitive theorizing in a post-colonial era. Therefore, in some earlier writings, I referred to the position of the concept of ‘evolution’ in anthropology as a kind of ‘forbidden fruit.’ The apple lying there, rotting, of course has many implications on the way we theorize about the meaning of being human in general. Let’s take a second look at the apple. While the introduction of evolution is often disregarded as a betrayal, an apostasy, or a fall from grace, it may be argued that Adam and Eve ‘awakened’ by eating the forbidden fruit and in fact ‘grew up’ (Burris, 2005). Integral shows that the integration of the concept of evolution (let’s rename it again as ‘growth’ again here) into anthropological theory does by no means legitimate oppression in name of a shortcut to heaven, nor does it require or can it even afford a ‘bossy’ gatekeeper, nor does it mean that self-reflexivity ought to be thrown out as a baby with the bathwater. Quite to the contrary, an integral anthropology would wonder how we can relate to the idea of growth in a way that fosters planetary well-being and shine for all, constantly questioning our application of ideas of growth and the meaning of the concept of growth itself, as well as the relationship of empirical findings with a multitude of contextual factors. Encouraging self-reflexivity, we would constantly place our motivation under scrutiny: it is not a pinning down in categories under the form of a labelling that is sought, but rather an invitation to tune into the fullness and depth of our continuous capacity to blossom as (members of) a species.
Yet, it is a painful process to leave the ‘paradise of immunity’ that anthropologists have sought as a home to save their skin from extinction as a discipline. However, we are called to address the challenge, since the same relativistic anthropological discourse has proven to be painfully separatist and thus captured by a profound ‘us/them’ discourse. Humanity is now not divided in races, but in incommensurable cultures, and this position is sacrificed to the happy abuse of extreme right parties.
It is therefore beautiful that the quest to build on an integral anthropology is so neatly interwoven with spiritual endeavours, as wise descendents of religious rituals, that however maintain what religion etymologically offers: a careful (re-) reading of what unites and transcends people. In the riches of intercultural difference, the vast spectrum of possible cosmologies becomes visible. To use the metaphor of a contact dance once more, we are called to be responsive to what can co-emerge when such possibilities meet as much as we are called to be responsive to see what “extra” can come into manifestation when we form a united “yantra” for divination to descend and inspire us. As we travel, differently patterned geometries of meaning artistically light up with altering ‘gloss’ and ‘shine’ as we go about. In celebrating humanity’s diversity, we may become responsive to the dynamics of memories that lie in the future.
This whole attempt can be situated in an “anthropology of anthropology,” and endeavour to which integral can bring huge contributions and insights. How do we heal the collective pain of the researchers in this field and transcend as well as include our discipline’s history to venture the new shores of what is possible in today’s challenging times? Anthropology has such a great way to move from the self to the non-self; the non-self signifying the other, our own ‘other self’ when we take a reflexive stance, and potentially that ‘non-self’ that transcends all of these options. Moreover, how would the anthropological method change when the power of presence is fully invited in?
This, and a lot more is on our plate. And we will investigate this inspired by the energy of both joy and awe that fills the room in our JFK office. Each week we unite our minds in the quest to penetrate the leading edge of the planet’s thought forms.