emerge vs Integral and beyond

On a sunny Saturday this autumn, I was sitting on my chair packed into a circle with seven other human beings in the cellar of the bUm in Kreutzberg and discussing the view on the individual in the metamodern era. It was a bit emotionally overwhelming after 18 months of physical distancing but at the same time a very familiar setting.

The session was part of the emerge gathering in Berlin, where we engaged in discussions around the broader question on promises or expectations and shadows around the metamodern project. The workshop was hosted by Johan Ranefors, focusing on the role of the organisation in the metamodern project, Ellie Hain, outlining different imaginaries emerging throughout history, and Alexander Bard, promoting the “dividual” that he borrowed from Deleuze as a way forward from the limiting view on humans as mare individuals. Or does this undermine the individual as one of the central pillars of the modern society resulting from the enlightenment and breaking free from authoritarian dogma? Do the dividual transcend and include the individual?

Berlin emergePhoto: Tomas Björkman presenting at the emerge gathering.

This discussion around shadows triggered some reflections on the difference between the integral community where I have some experiences and everything around the emerge gathering and realm. Although these two worlds differ in many aspects that I will address, there is a significant overlap in terms of theories and outlook, such as

  • aiming for building a space beyond postmodern deconstructive critique,
  • embracing a transformational attitude,
  • involving developmental perspectives informed by adult development theories,
  • integrating a multitude of strands of culture and life, and
  • aiming for bridging science and spirituality.

There is also a significant overlap in the participants where I recognised and connected with several individuals from the integral scene.

Let’s return to the shadows, but first some differences between the two worlds.

Integral, its worldview, culture and movement, was characterised by and centred around a single person, a single idea, and a single framework. The person was, of course, Ken Wilber, the main idea was development or evolution by transcending and including previous levels, and the framework for describing (and prescribing) this was AQAL. Although there was a trajectory of criticism and bringing forth different alternatives and theorists, the integral approach can thus be described as quite monolithic, which had its advantages and drawbacks. One advantage was that it was easier to have a common language and frame of reference to unite around – or to critique. A clear view, definition, and perspective around what development means facilitates your own development in many ways, but even more so the development of the community. You can build the Tower of Babel higher when everyone speaks the same language.

In contrast, the emerge context is more characterised as a network or an eco-system of many actors, ideas, frameworks, and initiatives. The very notion of emerge implies that no single theory, framework, or perspective can predict what may arise from combining these different perspectives and approaches. It is more appealing and inviting for many to come to a world that is not pre-defined or a set table, but where you can co-create everything, including the very frames and definitions of what emerge or metamodern is. When Integral was more of an answer that looked for questions and applications in different areas, emerge is more of an open and living question without a fixed answer and closer to the actual challenges around sustainability.

This more open attitude may appear more complex or mature. Still, in terms of the stagewise perspectives such as those building on hierarchical complexity, it is acknowledged that you reach higher when you have support rather than having to invent everything by yourself. This represents, however, a slightly more restricted view on what development is and how it should unfold. This stagewise view does not contain emergence more than in a pedagogical sense, that of developing uniquely but reaching yet another pre-defined and general level or stage. And even though the emerge movement wants to see itself as the leading edge of cultural expression in the western world, it is probably considered a step back when assimilated into an integral perspective. But it all depends on what you mean by complexity and by “reaching” a certain level in terms of understanding it – or carrying it as your own insight.

A more open view on development and emergence is represented by e.g. the branch of complex thinking that adheres to dialectics where emergence is both a thought form and a core aspect. This also concurs with my experience from transdisciplinary research. Although a single person may reach higher in complexity than a group having to find a common language, negotiate and compromise the different perspectives into a coherent framework, a collective approach may be easier disseminated and have a broader impact. The more you involve those affected by the perspective, framework or approach, the likelier it is that they will engage in it.

In my understanding, another difference between emerge and Integral was that spirituality was more at the centre of attention in the Integral world. The Integral view on spirituality was more radical in its approach and many key players were connected to spiritual practices and communities. Evolution was fundamentally seen as a spiritual endeavour. To be fully enlightened, you need to develop vertically (stages) as well as horizontally (states), which is the mission of existence.

Integral went further in terms of how one should relate to the world. Integral was not only a set of ideas or a community. It was also a worldview, an operating system, a way of making meaning, acting and identifying. It was more than only using the terminology and the integral concepts, but also being Integral? Not only watching the river but immersing oneself completely.

Integral was more exclusive in terms of the higher pre-requisites of the participants. Although everyone was welcomed, Integral was doubtlessly more elitist as it implicitly placed higher demands on the participants rather than being inviting and inclusive (that’s sooo postmodern). Much attention was given to analysing other frameworks, groups and individuals in terms of to which extent they qualified as being integral or not. This was also the case for the internal discussions, to ensure that they held an integral standard in complexity and embodiment. Ideally, an integral life practice was not something you only did in your spare time, or even integrated with parts of your life, but of something your entire life should be an expression.

There was, not surprisingly, a flipside to it. Or rather, the dark side – the shadows. So, what does shadow mean here? In the integral context, the shadows are described as disowned parts of ourselves that we tend to project on our neighbours. In Freud’s terms, which Wilber quotes, the goal is to integrate the shadow to make it part of the self – “Wo Es war, soll Ich werden.” In a broader sense, the shadow can be that blind spot you don’t know you are missing that comes back to haunt you when you least expect it. Shadows can also be applied to collectives, such as entire cultures as studied by Thomas Hübl, and movements as if they had a personality.

Although Integral’s core, ambition, and very meaning were to integrate all available perspectives, and although shadow-work was valued as a core practice, we are always only human. Being more clearly defined and first on the integral scene, the Integral world struggled with some apparent shadows. Here I don’t mainly refer to its exclusiveness in terms of “being Integral or not” and claims of being all-encompassing, both of which were intentional ambitions. But rather, in the abuse of integrally acclaimed and endorsed gurus, I won’t describe in detail here. With this very clear idea of what development is and a strong sense of purpose and urgency, some believed that no sacrifice was too big in the name of evolution. Some just got lost in the space beyond conventions.

A core shadow in my eyes was a consequence of the notion of the “transcend and include” view of development. This means that a new stage of development includes all previous stages with all their aspects and qualities. You don’t develop into something else, but into something more. Although this principle may be accurate in some areas such as mathematics (if you know how to perform integral calculus, then by definition you can add), it doesn’t hold up that well for most other areas such as understanding what a human being or a culture is, what it means to have a healthy relationship with the earth or recognise different berries. This led to some overestimating one’s own abilities among integral practitioners.

Back to the promises, expectations and shadows of emerge. Should we expect any shadows? Always, yes. We can and will likely mess things up. Hopefully, we’ll learn from it and take the consequences. But in comparison with Integral, I see three reasons that the shadows will likely be milder:

  • emerge is more diffuse and ambiguous in its multitude of theories, actors and issues. Unambiguity and light cast darker shadows. But here, there is no apparent telos or higher purpose and no single framework to get attached to.
  • emerge have emerged a couple of decades after Integral and can hopefully learn from previous mistakes. Raising the question as Johan, Ellie and Alexander did is a good preventive initiative.
  • In the emerge context, there is more emphasis on complex challenges around sustainability. The situation is direr now than 20 years ago. We are now more aware that complex means that challenges can’t be solved, only addressed. In the Integral context, there was a common implicit assumption that we can solve everything if we only evolve high and fast enough.

There will, however, be shadows here as well; rest assured. One is that the notion of emergence might be taken too seriously. That solutions to all problems will magically emerge if we only bring our different perspectives and good intentions. A good assumption is that we are always in a bubble, however inclusive we try to be.

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