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Steven Nickeson is a former magazine based investigative journalist, author, essayist, editor and private investigator from the USA. He is currently an artist-blacksmith living now in Venezuela, and then again in British Columbia. He is the author of two blogs: Integral Liberties and Kabiri. Nickeson, when at large in the rather minuscule Integral Province, is known for being more entertained by playing with its ideas than taking any of them even half seriously. This essay is republished from "Integral Liberties" by permission. He can be contacted at [email protected].

Integral Province:
Sensualist move on…

Steven Nickeson

If you are at large in the Integral Province, a tourist perhaps or a Seeker or stumbling through the sprawling Integral Mall of consulting care givers and Espiritu-Social Democrat change agents, looking maybe for half a rack of fleshy smoked ribs and a pint or two of IPA…sensualist move on. To the sorry dwarfing of The Provincial culture and its imperial ambitions, this is just not one of those places. Instead it’s a kind of ashramic sanctuary for postulant abstractions and words without stories. And for all the lip service paid here to Context—the sine qua non of intelligent interpretation—all the homeless, artless words under foot seem to shun every context except Mind.


The big box mercado is packed…Hallowthanksmas is serious business here. All the the front-end kids called in today so there are only three checkout colas, each an hour long. The muzac is salsa. Two carts ahead of us a man on the younger edge of middle age, thinning brown hair, worn black Tee from the U.S., black jeans, is paused by a table display of boxed glass dinner ware. The lid of one carton has been pried half open. The man starts his percussion solo on this one. He works the bass with the heel of his right hand in the middle of the intact side; snaps his left index finger along the edge of the torn opening on the half-beat, the other nine fingers and both palms work the entire surface. He’s finding four or five registers across the box top plus the various shots he sporadically takes off the corners and the sides. The man casually gazes around the blah cubed cavern and drums and waits to move along. His accompaniment is superior to the muzac and lasts perhaps 10 minutes. Though the sound could have told me different, I doubt he’s professional. He doesn’t have to be—this is the southern Caribbean.

Just now the sunrise is turning scarlet behind the quebradas that are full of fog below the house, and the moon, four nights from new, conjuncts Venus at the top of my window. I click on a couple of album covers on the “music” page of Matthew Dallman’s site to see how his music stacks up against his essays that are all about Integral. The music isn’t as dense. If music can be said to have syntax, like prose English has syntax, Dallman’s compositions leave his written words far behind. It strikes me as well considered; studious and deliberate structures that move along like restrained and softly fitful conversations and monologues in the tenor to mezzo ranges. There is rarely a bass line. A drum machine on one cut intrudes along side a solo piano, patterns a few repetitive sounds and exits abruptly. Dallman lives in Chicago.

Evidence of what is absent here in The Integral Province can be found in two small instances of heedlessness in the principle Integral Canon. These are small issues, little gaucheries like standing in the salon with a trail of toilet paper stuck to one’s shoe, amusing almost but tending a little more toward a larger revelation. The first is the following unfortunate choice of a metaphor:
—The presence of God (a.k.a. Spirit) in The All of Everything is like the wetness of the ocean.—This is the essence of Ken Wilber’s testimony in Jim Chamberlain’s essay, “Whither Ken Wilber” recent on the Integral World site. Ever since I rode into Integral Province (to see how the civilian population handled the Wholeness Perspective–the object of my fascination) I have wondered why the language here rarely corresponds with something one can touch with their hands, that one can sense. But in that brief disquisition on God, Wetness, and the Ocean I finally got what I had wanted, so I am satisfied to a point. I suspect it is as good as one will get around The Province where there is little considered analysis of the manifest and sense-able. I spend a sizable portion of my time in the sense-able consideration of the manifest and manifesting so while Chamberlain and probably most others in The Province rolled without a second thought across the analogy, immediately my instincts said, “wrong.” The ocean isn’t wet. But if I touch it with my hand, my hand gets wet because my hand is not the ocean. I could guess that the obverse of this is that the surface of the ocean that engages with my hand becomes something of myself that the ocean isn’t, but I won’t; the transitory quality of the ocean in this instance is of no consequence because the ocean is not the measure of anything, nor is wetness, nor is God, while man, as the man said, is the measure of it all.

From the sensual perspective on the ocean analogy the nature of Wilber’s God/Spirit descends to something of a dualistic presence instead of retaining the non-dual “universalist grandure” (Richard Rorty’s phrase) that Wilber wanted to imply with the image. But that is not the point here. Wilber can harbor his God anywhere he wants, fashion It any way he wants; It is after all his creation. Likewise I see no problem with him retaining the detachment from the apparently solid Here and Now that subverts his efforts to write something about it that is as considered and effective as what a sensualist would write of the same thing. This lack of consideration, however, makes for a comic lop-sided and ineffective imperialist movement, if an expanding sphere of influence is what the civilians of the Integral Province really want; a lack that will keep maintaining this territory as a faltering little isolationist district like…I don’t know. Paraguay?

When I am writing of the sensualist I am not including in any way Dionysius a la Nietzsche’s Apollo/Dionysius dichotomies that make sense only when restricted to the two-dimensional, monastic environment of printed pages on cultural theory. This is, instead, about flesh and blood epicurians (though not necessarily Epicurians for their patriarch strikes me as having been excessively prudish), and hedonists, and any aesthete who would accept the styling of sensualist. I will not exclude de Sade, John Wilmot, Arthur Rimbaud, Neal Cassady or Fyodor and Dmitri, Karamazov father and son, or any other sense privileging experience junky. Some in my position might be more exclusive for fear their credibility will be compromised by the sketchy reputation of the company they keep. But I will choose a fascinating field of associates over social approbation with certain knowledge that vulgarity is not always synonymous with sensuality and quite often is it’s opposite— a display of one who’s sense of sense has been truncated by culture, religion or a tragic failure of consciousness into pre-adolescent prurience, of which several examples can be found in The Provincial Canon.

There are two sensual essentials to be emphasized here. The first is contained in the phrase “experience junky,” which is often listed as an attribute of a sensualist with no further examination of what it entails: which is primarily that dubious ability to make perfectly reasonable life choices that often lead—as a secondary or tertiary consequence—to the perpetuation of a dangerously exposed, unblinkered, unbuffered and marginal life. It is an existence that the youthful romantics in the coffee bars and devitalized men in their wellness groups laud as “living in the moment;” a cliche thought to be high praise until one realizes that it is heard only from those situated well back from the edge; a hint that the spontaneous life is mostly popular as a spectator sport. Still some sensualists survive, even flourish, actually able to exploit the resources of wisdom found at the fringe. But that is far from guaranteed to all.

Context—The Ice Barn

Mark has second thoughts about signing on for this welding gig. He checks the size of the steel,the heat of the fire and goes on the hunt for heavier gloves. Pamala is lining up her cameras, one for slides, one for b&w, one for color prints. She’s a film snob, disdains digital and would rather buy cameras than eat and is often too broke to do either. Pamala’s putting together a photo essay on people at their work. I’m forging joinery scarfs on the ends of two of the heaviest pieces of steel I’ve worked in years, mainstays in a free-standing retro-contemporary sculpture that I just happened to design with the right codified height and thickness to serve also as a handrail. The lumbering old swamp cooler on the far end of the space really isn’t doing the job because its August and the forge is in South Tucson. This is a separate town inside a city; a planned community of sorts in the old days, planned for the marketing of numerous vices and a place where people of color could own their own homes and stay out of the spaces of the white folk. One rarely hears English on the streets. The building was once an ice barn. We work in the back two thirds and up front is a failing liquor store, the owner of which pumps very heavy iron every day, keeps a seven-foot komodo dragon and populates his office with half-a-dozen near-life-size Gene Simmons action figures. If he pays the utilities he can’t stock his shelves. If he stocks his shelves they cut the power and his beer gets hot. The guy with whom I share this space is a thirty-something, alcoholic sculptor who’s into the owner for about six months of back rent and it is a horse race as to which of the two will bottom-out first. When things get really pinched up front the owner comes back and tries to throw the sculptor out but somehow he manages to stay and the lights keep shining save for only six or seven days a year. The sculptor often doesn’t show until after four and just as often spends the full night here to stay out of his wife’s way. She studies for a PhD while he slaughters brain cells with a guy named A*** who looks like he still has rickets and sweeps up now and again for the privilege of sleeping in the bathroom when the weather’s bad and his room mate runs him off. A***’s cousin, P***, a crack whore, drops by weekly and bums loose change for smokes. From time to time a tall calaca in a threadbare trench uses the sculptor’s space as a show room to sell stolen bicycles. He and I are the only ones around who are levering any kind of income from the place. I stay because no other site would tolerate my coal-fired forge, the rent’s not bad and the unbuffered life’s mostly a delight in this procession of irrepressible variables and novel contingencies.

The second essential element that rises on our way to the next evidentiary exhibit is the need to weigh matters of art and artistry so as to establish a common reference since the sensual like to create art and the not-so-sensual like to think about it. De Sade and Wilmot were artists, though neither could match Rimbaud. Cassady could turn an artful phrase but he rarely did and the Old Man Karamazov type in the spoof Art School Confidential spoke of “the narcotic moment of creative bliss.” I would have scripted “aphrodisiacal moment,” if the actor had been able to pronounce it naturally; “narcotic” denotes the sleeping of senses not their stimulation and works better in a phrase like: “the narcotic moment of media absorption.” Nonetheless, the line as it was spoken got the point across about art that is created as a production and extension and realization of the sensual flow of creativity above and beyond whatever thoughts and feelings might bob along in its wake. It is my feeling that the preeminent embodiment of art is the work one creates out of one’s own living, the informed instinctual aesthetic that makes a Whole of the piece and steadies it in the face of all the chaotic Other. In short: the life that is not a truly class act from the core to it’s furtherest effect isn’t worth living. Of smaller importance is the categorical collection that includes but is not restricted to: two dimensional art, three dimensional, gastronomic, sexual, auditory (in this one I include written art and not just poetry–read Dostoevsky aloud, Crime and Punishment is the best, and you will hear some of the finest auditory art of all time), the art of movement and the theatrical arts. In regard to this last category I submit the following:

After ignoring Wilber’s output for 13 or 14 years, I encountered his writing again in 2005 in “An Integral Theory of Consciousness wherein I came across this line: “If you want to know the meaning of Hamlet, learn to read English, get the play, read it, and see for yourself.” thereupon I almost shouted, “What? If you want to know the meaning of Hamlet, learn dramatics, mount the play. Second best: buy a ticket, attend the production!” Hamlet is a stage play, an elementary fact that makes its meaning close to infinitely larger than the page-bound, though still sublime, words on sorrow, obsession, cupidity, self-doubt, revenge, and the sub-texts of almost every speech in the work. The meaning is all of that plus the size of the venue, the shape of the stage, the tones of the sets, the cut of the costumes, the forms of the players and their placements as the lights come up, their movements around one another, the sounds of their voices, the cadence of their deliveries, the kinesthesis of the audience, the aroma of the occupant in the next seat, and the taste of the Jack Daniels in a plastic cup at intermission. All of that is fundamental to the meaning of Hamlet and those not conscious of these elements and their direct sensual effects on the entire experience and their need to be considered can only be living fractional lives.

Wilber’s failure here was a tragic failure of consciousness, a lack of consideration for the basic element of consciousness. He didn’t have enough respect for or experience with something that could be an actual presence to give his own words a second remedial thought. The failure here is like that of a film editor whose lack of integrity allows her to leave in the final cut the shadow of a camera boom or the misplacement of a prop between takes; small, thoughtless production errors that belittle credibility. Wilber ignored the writer’s first rule: Write only about what you know. His naive sentence on Hamlet makes it apparent he knows little or nothing about the profound sensuality of Shakespeare, or the theater, or more generally anything of the sensual and its art. But few people in this Province do. The kids who loiter around the Integral Institute’s sites might counter this charge by submitting to the court the official I-I veneration of Alex Gray and Stuart Davis naive to the irony that on that same evidence I can rest my case.

Context—The Weld

Mark is working on an MFA, turns out pretty decent steel sculpture and welds really well. But he’s never seen a forge weld and wonders why I just don’t do these with a machine. I tell him I’m too much of a prima donna. An aspirant once said to me,”I always thought you guys who can weld up steel with your hammers were gods.” and I’ve never looked back. I don’t tell Mark that I’m not as fond as he is of machines, or tools and gadgetry that are bad stand-ins for talent, but I do rejoice in fire, its always sinuous look, its odor, the menace and fever from it, and the cool, visceral wash of adrenaline I feel in its presence.

The scarfed ends of the two steel bars, side by side in the coke-bed, are a radiant, searing bright lemon color. Their surfaces look glassy and slick; they’re starting to sweat, I cut back on the force of the blower, watch for sparks, tiny brilliant chips of iron oxide slag that shower off like fireworks when the metal’s ready to weld. The three of us, Pamala, Mark and I are all sweating the same as the steel. The feel of this scene is so charmed I want to laugh. Mark knows what to do; we’ve practiced. He’s handling a 60 lb. length of 2” round stock; my end is a little thicker, noticeably shorter and a third as heavy.

A burst of sparks—I yell “Go!” and we plunge into a state of intensely focused and reckless speed. He drags his steel, fast, fast, from the fire, lays the incandescent end inside the chalk marks I’ve outlined on the anvil, braces himself and I press my piece, scarf to scarf, atop the other, hold it almost loosely there and strike with sharp quick hammer blows. I’m trying to shock start the molecular exchange across the dimensionless space between the two. It will happen all at once inside the first few seconds or not at all. Four swift blows, five, and I feel my piece suddenly tighten against the other, feel the steel below the hammer double in thickness, The hammer’s ring drops an octave in the space of that single blow. The weld is stuck…integration…cohesion. What was dual in one split second transcends to unity. That’s when I start to work, laying into the joint like I was possessed, yelling at Mark to turn it over…pull it back…push it, push it…turn…again! Pamala’s camera is clicking over like a tiny diesel engine on a fast idle. Sweat is running in my eyes, washing ash across my glasses. Mark’s face is turned away from the spray of slag from every blow. When the lemon color deepens toward orange we lay the piece back in the fire. The doubled-thick bulge in the length of it looks like an egg in a snake. Mark wanders around hunting for face protection. Pamala selects another camera, debates herself on filters. I crank the blower, chuckle and catch my breath. To work the bulge into a clean, unblemished, ever so slightly tapered, invisible joint takes five more heats, a 10 lb. sledge and a brake on the beat.

Back in Integral Mall, if one takes time to examine the growing offerings one finds an atmosphere in which those who administer sales of care giving and change agency like to give lip service to art but don’t know how or where to wedge it into their theories on the structural order of things. Most try to make artists part of the up-market service industries like personal chefs or transpersonal therapists. And they prefer to think that artists, like all the other really important people, like they themselves, are forever diligent in their labors on behalf of The Culture, or Evolution or the Future of Spirituality. But intuition says thats might not always be the case, so on the whole all subjects re: art just makes care givers and change agents nervous and condescending and fearful that every artist who happens along is going to know that they don’t know what to do with something from someone whose blood, they suspect, might be brighter and closer to the surface than theirs. Thus the illustrations on their sites, if there are any, tend toward sentimental pantheism, always an easy way out. From several decades of acquaintances with those at the forefront of the Self/Spiritual/Cultural Evolution trades, entrepreneurial soul mates to the proprietors here at Integral Mall, I have found too many evince an initially benign puzzlement “Why can’t all art be dedicated to serving the object of my reverence? If it did then all art could be good art…some would be well…like…better than the rest but not more important,of course.” And it continues through a not so benign proposal: “If there was only some means to re-educate away the egotism and nihilism and sardonic, intractable autonomy of those other artists…yes, re-education…a law perhaps” (Or maybe some camps.)

Yes! Re-education! It is the universal management tool for the modern anabolic sovereignty and in light of the imperial ambitions of The Integral Province it is worth a brief digression from the sensory into the sensory-null predisposition of its home territory. Here the Wilber faction promotes re-education via rationality, synthesizing research, quasi-historical/anthropological hypotheses, and Vision Logic, a not particularly formal cognitive operation from the genus that Juergon Habermas calls “other than reason.” The target populations are the practitioners in the flatland reductionist disciplines who wantonly exclude spirituality, contemplative practices and a Wilber-favored Neoplatonic taxonomy of the cosmos from the scientific study of humanity’s psychophysiological development and cultural evolution. Matthew Dallman, whose essays I generally appreciate, lacks the Wilberian sized fan base but wants to re-educate the masses back into an unconditioned veneration of the Canon of Western Humanities so as to liberate it from the Pomo running dogs of Euro-American Critical Theory and their stooges from Cultural Studies. This is a cabal that Wilber regularly excoriates but in Dallman’s mind Wilber is one of the worst offenders—tense times. I wish I could write that blood has been spilled, but there isn’t a lot of blood to be found in Integral Province, I’ve rarely seen its signifier. Ironically, there is at Integral Mall a huge collective heart that is steeply inclined toward re-educating the Philistines into the values of a highly therapeutic, sustainable, Espiritu-Social Democratic, Gaia-wide federation, but after nearly 40 years of this message being retailed out through the same old functions and liturgies and incantations for personal and planetary salvation dessicated cliches are peeling off its walls like ancient paper. No there isn’t any blood. I have seen evidence of cerebrospinal fluid though none that has been pumped below the first cervical vertebra. That’s as moist and as low as it goes around here.

Context—Hammers Like These

Working hammers of this weight—ten pounds—in this heat is a gourmet meditation on the priceless treasure of the body—that which we are until that moment we aren’t. The eyes and shoulders take care of the weld, wu wei, it doesn’t need another thought. This body is the only asset and care in the whole world now. One strikes right as if growing up, tranquil, from the earth with a dark, slacked core of original energy settled just above the groin as the center and source of awareness. It’s a little like a slow dirty, Latin dance and a dance to be regally, seductively dirty must look and feel as if it is the easiest thing two people have ever done standing up; a dance so certain of itself that the steps are barely there; just brief, cathartic afterthoughts that really aren’t thought of as much as they are small reflexive tokens to the music that, for its own part in the piece, is not so much the impulse for the dance but a restraint on its passion. So too, heavy hammers move almost on their own, verging on beyond control. Gripping hammers that weigh like this will soon cripple the hands and the feeling of ease; being crippled spoils the fun to be had at the border with chaos. These hammers are held like a small bird—with just sufficient tension to keep them from flying away. They bounce, levitate on their own—boost the lift, stretch up with it, sense the apex, pause there. Throw the hammers down, try not to miss. Hammers of this weight in learned hands are always thrown at the work; softly guided there. They are never swung. The blow, steel against steel, generates power again into the core and that sense could be the entire reason to be right here. Care for the body—that is all there is—keep it straight, tranquil, upright and healthy so it can always feel this sublime and real, this close to the ground and a shout for delight and this fantasy of living forever that is spun up from the source.

But for all of that, sledge hammers still get heavy.

After the first weld is finished we stick an only slightly thinner piece on the other end. Its the same drill; heat and adrenaline, thirst, water and trace mineral tablets, flecks of slag sizzling cool on wet forearms, racked breathing, laughter, shouting, floods of sweat, sulphurous steam when I damp the fire’s edge, the sun bleached Snickers Pamala brings back from the liquor store and the savored ground of vitality that substantiates it all.

Sensibilities like these are not found much in The Province or its canon and they might not do so well in these environs because (though his topic was slightly more dire) the scene is the same as when Cassady wrote: “This means little to those who have not lifted the veil.”

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