Breadcrumbs from the Owl of Minerva • 7 March 2008

Are some people deeper than others? More highly conscious?

Oh, don’t ask that question, Owl. It offends my egalitarian values. Personal development is equal opportunity! 

Um. Sorry.

The first objection any pluralist will have to the spiral dynamics story is that it is hierarchical. Later consciousness is bigger than earlier consciousnsess. Shit: there’s development (which smacks of colonial politics right there). Hierarchies mean power and power means authority and those two together mean domination. Which the powers of social science and the humanities intend to delegitimate and deconstruct in Mighty Supertwins style. Ready steady go!

Hey, I’m in. Except for on this topic. Stay with me: I'll just make a quick incision and then it will be over:

If consciousness evolves, there is this logical problem of everything seeming to flow necessarily toward one predetermined end-point, what the Greeks called a telos. What about chance and openness to changing the course of history? What about unforeseen catastrophe? What about human choice over the matter? The other big problem with teleological theories is that the reek of conservative post-war thought—the functionalist systems theory that saw society as a well-ordered mega-organism and said social action was all about roles and structure and nothing about agency and sensuous individual human creativity. Great picture of the 1950s, that, but the ‘60s changed all things thank god.

There are other problems too. All structural theories, including my beloved Bourdieu, are like that: you can’t lean on them too much or really take them seriously, because they generate inner contradictions and collapse. This stuff is interpretive, not explanatory. You wield it lightly if you understand it at all. Spiral dynamics is an uber-theory that academics cannot use because it's unfashionably large–a borg subsuming all the psychological, sociological, economic and anthropological time maps produced the past century. Do you think there’s some sense in Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs? In Habermas’ picture of communicative sociality? Or did Aurobindo ever do it for you? All of these are theorists of the evolution of consciousness— smaller players absorbed in the bigger game of spiral dynamics as it’s understood today.

To clarify, spiral dynamics as we're talking here is a map of the evolution of societies. But what is really interesting and threatening is that it also contains maps for the evolution of individuals’ consciousness. Color-coded maps! Most people in this zone would dial in at green/pluralistic, but there are a few turquoise integralists running around without even knowing that this is what you are. And there’s tension because the ashtanga world also contains blue fundamentalism, purple superstition, and red primitive ego. But no matter where a person is at on this map, he still contains multitudes—the authoritarianism, superstition and pure ego, etc., that he personally passed through on his way to the present point of view. It’s not a class system because none of the stages are bad! They are what they are and if we think they're bad that's our problem. For me, It’s a pretty beautiful, subtle picture of wholeness and a validation of all the mentalities we personally experience even if we are consciously seeking to increase our own consciousness.

If the idea that consciousness has evolved seems improbable, well, what do you think of the idea that life itself has evolved? Uh huh. We don’t dispute that natural selection has reordered and expanded the content of life itself—made it more complex and, well, higher-functioning.

This doesn’t have to mean everything’s going to a predetermined destination. We do have some examples of what seem to be very highly-evolved states of consciousness that give hints (and don’t even tell me you don’t believe that shit is real, because most of you have briefly tasted from it, ashtangis); but as for end points, it could be bad or it could be good or it could be up to chance. (There’s the suspicion that some higher energy is in play, of course, but I'm not the Owl of Minerva so how can I say?) See what my friend JJ says at the end of the video I embedded below.

The only really audacious claim that spiral dynamics makes is that yes, some people are more highly conscious than others. And while all people are beautifully whole and perfect wherever we are… we happen to be at different places on the ladder we are all, if ineptly, probably  (hopefully?) climbing.

None of it is my idea (see esp. Ken Wilber, or William Irwin Thompson), though when I delve in to the map of consciousness and use it to interpret the beautifully diverse mentalities and worldviews of those around me, the system does blow my mind a bit. If you want to know where it would place you, read some recent Ken Wilber (the last I read was Integral Spirituality and it did the job fine, with an even bigger Integral philosophy encompassing spiral dynamics), or google. Integral people are all over the web, creating culture and doing some of the most subtle but audacious analysis of our world that I have encountered anywhere. It gets to me, because even though they don’t have the tools of the pluralist sociologists (exemplars of The Statistical Age), they have an arguably higher consciousness.


  • Posted 7 March 2008 at 3:59 pm | #

    The first thing I want to say about what I’m about to say, is that I really should read some source material. It’s not that I’m about to say uninformed things, it’s that I’m going to write about what I know and try to address what I’m only shallowly familiar with, by means of what I know more deeply. Here goes:

    Yes, I see echoes of Nietzsche in this (he didn’t care for egalitarian distribution of “the will to power” either). What really raised my suspicion in the video was the depiction of historical periods (temporal progression) alongside “consciousness” progression; for example, this color system STILL seems to me, to rank “the Enlightenment” over “religious mysticism” and such which, historically, preceded it. That’s suspect and there’s no way I can fix it. It sets off warning bells and alarms in a way that I cannot and really don’t want to, make quiet.

    And, I know this is the go-to guy for fire-testing virtually any theory of anything, but, HITLER. 20th century. In a way, the leader of the most efficient technological-military buildup in recent memory. How should one fit the events surrounding his rule (and by this I mean all the way out to “I was only following orders” and Eichmann and all of that) into a map of human consciousness levels? How do things like French collaborators fit in? What would people of wisdom HAVE done, what SHOULD they have done? What did “consciousness” demand in those circumstances? Why did people follow, collaborate, participate? Do we want to chalk this up to a certain limited “nation-state” consciousness or a “mean meme”?

    See how this industrial, Western genocide doesn’t quite have the same “well they were culturally backward” or “it was a long time ago” sneaky back-door escape hatches that, say, Rwandan genocide or Alexander’s conquest of the civilized world, do?

    Anyway, at this point, I want to remind everyone that no, I HAVEN’T READ THE SOURCE MATERIAL HERE and so I don’t mean these questions as some kind of unaccepting uber-interrogation. I mean this as a way of saying, hey, cool idea, but you are going to have to sway me THIS HARD if you’re going to pull me over.

    Alejandro Jodorowsky, in an interview, once said that there is creative violence and destructive violence. Another of my problems with self-sacrifice and so forth is that it doesn’t seem to account for thinking like that of Antonin Artaud, Jodorowsky, Bataille, even some of the most spooky tangents which can be derived from Nietzsche. Anyway, I’ll put this stuff on my reading list: it might be interesting to see how I wrap my head around it.

  • Posted 7 March 2008 at 6:15 pm | #

    OH MY! You rabble rouser!
    It’s all very egalitarian, yet some of us are faster runners than others and some of us don’t want to run at all.

  • Posted 7 March 2008 at 7:23 pm | #

    I always wonder if there wasn’t just an astonishing incomprehensibility factor at work, Patrick. Just too awful to be grasped in its entirety.

    That said, Klaus Theweleit wrote an astonishing dissertation that was published as “Male Fantasies,” outlining the way the culture of the brown shirts marginalized specific experiences/groups (women, gays, Jews)and then systematically dehumanized/demonized them until they were basically stomped (consciousness-wise) into nothingness. And if something’s inhuman, evil and insignificant, what’s the harm in erradicating it?

  • Posted 7 March 2008 at 7:30 pm | #

    Oh! This post is generating SO MUCH ANGST! I haven’t read your comments, you three, and the owl is away from the internet for the rest of the day. But in addition to whatever has been said here, I want to acknowledge the fact that three EXTREMELY ANGSTY emails have landed in my box about this in recent hours. So intense.

    Ha ha! I love dangerous ideas. Keep stewing. Don’t look away just yet….

  • Posted 7 March 2008 at 9:14 pm | #

    Obviously to eradicate any large group of people it is important to marginalize their importance of existence. Hitler did seem to do this in a very systematic, industrialized way. But I think the only reason this bothers some western people more than horrors like Rwanda and Pol Pot’s regime, is that it’s because they feel more connected. They feel connected to these people, they are their relatives and they know Jewish people, they have more at stake than “oh, those people in Cambodia are backwards”…so we marginalize those senseless deaths as somehow more easily digestible. That is our own fucked up hierarchy as human beings. Done on a small insignificant scale all day long, every day.

    I don’t believe that until every last person sees every other last person as an equal, this will ever change.

    And as far as structural philosophical theories, including your beloved Bourdieu, when they actually collapse is when the real fun begins. Most people hate that when that happens!

  • Posted 7 March 2008 at 9:30 pm | #

    Curiosity about those angstful emails, in numbered comments:

    1) I imagine that it’s the anti-egalitarianism implied here, which sets people off. It’s easy to read anti-eg. as the worst mode of “overman” (in the Nietzschean sense) and from there, to social Darwinism or whatever you’d like to call it, fascism, et cetera.

    2) “Seeing every other person as an equal” would then be the answer to that (maybe), and this implies an egalitarianism which the original post seems to deny (note that my use of “seems to” implies my own doubts about the logical steps I’m making here).

    3) Yes, Susan and Karen, I agree: some change in “significance of life” happened, to permit those events. Mind-boggling stuff. Frighteningly casual we can be about it, too.

    4) Less hyperbolic critique of spiral dynamics: there is a lot of chitchat about “human nature” on Google pages about this. Didn’t Nietzsche/Foucault/a thousand other people get us beyond such totally indefensible, flimsy notions as “human nature”? PLEASE.

    5) Further critique: evolution results in more complexity, yes, I’d agree. More complexity does NOT, however, imply greater compassion or greater ethical behavior. Once upon a time, global trade was spices. Another time, it was slavery, which was more complicated (took ships, management of humanity, etc). Another time, it was global internet capitalism (Paypal and such). In all of these cases, there are robber barons (ENRON, anyone?). What greater compassion is implied by the greater complexity of this evolving trade mechanism? Am I really to believe that Dick Cheney is an EVOLVED version of, say, Genghis Khan? Oh, maybe they’re just both still in Ego Red, eh? What is this, some kind of “Take My Myspace Personality Test” meme? Let’s put a rainbow on it, to make it look pretty and then the business execs who use this stuff can pretned it’s a pie chart? Maybe Myspace is part of this great evolution of compassion, eh? Alright, alright alright, I hold my snarkiness (please note, that I felt this was invited).

  • Posted 7 March 2008 at 9:52 pm | #

    It is not possible to “fix” the world(caution, snarkiness to follow!).
    It’s like suggesting yoga to a person who is totally not interested. Let’s suggest enlightenment and love of the universal consciousness to some people on the street. I’m all egalitarian and shit! Yes! Enlightenment for all! Down with bad stuff and bad people! No more war either. It’s bad too. Oh! Rainbow pie charts! Yes! Yes!

    I think I will just have to work diligently on my own salvation, just like the Buddha said.

  • Posted 7 March 2008 at 11:54 pm | #

    Nope, you can’t tell people what to do. Interestingly, though, learning theory suggests that the best way to change people’s attitudes about something is to model the behavior. So yes to both of your paragraphs, Susan.

  • Posted 8 March 2008 at 1:48 am | #

    And just to give some props here: why not say, “I’m a broadminded person,” instead of saying, “Dude, I am a TIER TWO Aquamarine Thinker!” What is this, freakin DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS?

    Gary Gygax is dead; long live Gary Gygax!

  • Posted 8 March 2008 at 4:40 pm | #

    I can’t resist this question, which comes from my corporate mind: perhaps spiral wizardry is the equivalent of a siddhi? (LOL! Is it horrifying, from a sociologist’s view, to drag concepts between systems? A shocking bastardization?)

  • Posted 8 March 2008 at 5:05 pm | #

    Karen, I for one am shocked at your brazen strumpetry! It smacks of Unitarianism….

  • Posted 8 March 2008 at 5:24 pm | #


  • Posted 8 March 2008 at 10:02 pm | #

    Ha! “Take my personality test meme,” D&D, Rainbow Charts! Powerpoint enlightenment? Spiraling siddhis (ida/pingala)?!? You delightful second tier aquamarines, you. (Kidding.) Because of course: when I spied the length of this comment thread, I was worried that what had happened was an I’m-more-enlightened-than-you pissing contest. (Amazing how often this happens in the GAIA community at, one of the places where Integral people are working out the kinks in their own theory.)

    I have some thoughts (thoughts thoughts thoughts…) about the collapse of theory, including my beloved Bourdieu, on the suspicion that spiral dynamics has less integrity than other worldviews currently in operation, and on traveling concepts. Which if I were a priestess of either yoga or sociology I would have to hate (yes, Karen), because concept import/export erodes the boundaries of any grand theory/worldview. But “arbitrage” isn’t one my tags for nothing.

    The proposition that consciousness evolves is not anti-egalitarian. This is what we assume when we see any theory of “development” but spiral dynamics (especially in the hands of integral theorists) systematically embraces all manifestations of consciousness. It’s critical of “flatland” (google those critiques, or read them in Wilber), but this is different. “Transcend and include” is the watchphrase here. Check out J’s recent post on this (he is the guy who made the youtube I posted, as well as the person who sent me the UG quotation and wrote that great post on dreams).

    “Human nature” as an idea is essentialist and deterministic. This is why pluralist-green consciousness hates it. 🙂 But maybe other worldviews, at different locations on the borg, can make some use of it.

    On the idea that evolution yields complexity, but complexity does not mean greater compassion. What if evolution yields heart-opening? What if the evolution of consciousness involved softening of the boundaries of the ego and the possibility of much greater compassion and empathy? If you read about flatland, you’ll see that the idea that evolution is a one-dimensional process toward greater complexity, rather than a multi-dimensional process of not just lateral but inner and (GULP!!!) spiritual expansion is part of what the idea of “flatland” intends to critique. Spiral dynamics and integral theory are post-post essentialist (western rationalism and the academy—and a lot of the pluralist worldview—is (thanks to the Vienna Circle and American Pragmatism) basically still anti-essentialist and mostly materialist). But if we are to transcend and include old ideas about essence and Spirit, we may once again—however Marxist our rebirth may have been—find value in the idea that Spirit is real.

  • Posted 8 March 2008 at 10:07 pm | #

    Wow. I can’t believe I just wrote that last sentence. Wonder if the scientists are still reading and getting all red-memed-out over my suggestion of moving beyond anti-essentialism. That would have made me throw books 5 years ago.

    Anyway. P.S. is that if you listen to the Steve Dwelley and Matthew Sweeney interviews on yogapeeps, you’ll recognize ashtangis who are very much at home with these ideas. THEY are my idea of the third generation of ashtanga. Encompassing and transcending the contradictions in the tradition as they have received it.

  • Posted 9 March 2008 at 12:46 am | #

    “concept import/export erodes the boundaries of any grand theory/worldview”

    It’d work in a holographic universe, though! Where this notion of subsuming would turn into everything being an integral part of everything else in the hologram! (Why does that seem so delightful and merry? No idea, but I love it.)

    Does everyone else think “what the fuck am I talking about?!” every so often (as in, pretty often)?

    I LOVED the MS interview and was quite struck with his ability to encompass contradiction. Today I’m reading a book (management book) about “opposable mind.” Claims it will help the reader cultivate the ability to hold contradictory thoughts/options and synthesize…uh, capitalist siddhis from them. I’d always taken calm/delight-in-contradiction to be 1) an art trick and 2) a Buddhist trick, since those are the two environments where I experienced adepts in action.

  • Posted 9 March 2008 at 2:02 am | #

    Capitalist siddhis!!! (Mgmt literature is hysterically frightening.)

    FWIW, Marx had huge admiration for industrial capitalism, including its capacity to structure human consciousness and contain its own deep contradictions, at least for a time.

    Yes, I think what the fuck am I talking about. We are so unmoored from the ground of sensuous everyday experience here. 🙂

    The holographic, tetrarchical, always part/always whole thing—while possibly being goobledygook and referring to nothing at all—seems like an out to a lot of the vexations about hierarchy and hyper- individuality that this rats’ nest of concepts seems to hold.

  • Posted 9 March 2008 at 2:18 am | #

    I always think “what the fuck is OWL talking about?”!

  • Posted 9 March 2008 at 4:36 am | #

    I set you up for that.

  • Posted 9 March 2008 at 7:35 pm | #

    I think, largely, I’m having a vocabulary problem with this stuff and that it centers around “evolution.” I mean, I’m down with things like string theory as far as I know them, and my objections to SD weren’t, as far as I can tell, “green” (or not entirely green), but the use of “evolution” as a mode of expanding compassion annoys me. For compassion to be “evolutionarily chosen” in the scientific sense (or am I being too orange about this?) would mean that compassion intensifies the chances of one’s survival. There is such a MASSIVE proof, in human history, AGAINST this, that it simply can NOT, however pessimistic this seems, be true. NO FRICKIN WAY. I’m willing to buy that compassion is expansive and perhaps promoted by “greater” consciousness, and that levels of “lesser and greater” broadness of mind can coexist, but I am NOT willing to buy that we are “evolving into compassionate beings.” There’s simply no evidence FOR that and there is WAY too much evidence against it. And I can still envision Spirit, with a capital S, while I say this.

  • Posted 10 March 2008 at 2:44 am | #

    Oh… (advocating for the devil here, answering like a proponent of Spiral Dynamics):

    Your criticism only holds if the unit of analysis is the individual human.

    But why use that as the unit of analysis? I don’t like thinking like an economist or a rational choice theorist.

    Integral theorists would say that as the boundaries of the ego expand, or as the operative social unit becomes groups if not entire societies or species or life itself, then it turns out that cooperation and empathy are overwhelmingly better suited to survival than is violence and competition.

    Maybe I should send over a syllabus on this? Beginning from the seminal Evolution of Cooperation by Axelrod, it would be mostly anthropology, but also encompass recent developments in social theory, case studies in cultural sociology, agent-based modeling, game theory, and social psychology.

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