Arthur Zajonc interviews
William Irwin Thompson
Annals of Earth, Volume XIII, Number 3 1995
AZ: Bill, for more than twenty years you've had the desire as well as the occasion to work with some of the most interesting and daring scientists alive today. You did this not as a scientist yourself but as a cultural historian. What did you learn from such scientists as Lynn Margulis, James Lovelock, Francisco Varela? Where do you think we are in terms of the evolutionary framework of a Gebser, a Barfield, or a Rudolf Steiner? What are the symptoms you see in I contemporary science that would support your understanding of things?The shoe is on the other foot this time in the Lindisfarne section of Annals. Over the years it has become a tradition for Annals Contributing Editor William Irwin Thompson to interview scholars, Lindisfarne Fellows and certain other innovative thinkers who pique his intellectual curiosity. Here custom is reversed as Amherst College Professor of Physics and Lindisfarne Fellow Arthur Zanjonc interviews Dr. Thompson, extracting not only personal and Lindisfarne history but the breadth of his knowledge and the scope of his thinking. Arthur Zajonc’s latest book is Catching The Light: The Entwined History of Light and Mind. Like Lewis Thomas, Dr. Zajonc has the ability to transform scientific information into literature. William Irwin Thompson's new book Coming Into Being: Artifacts and Texts in the Evolution of Consciousness will be published next year by St. Martin Press. Contrary to his claim at the conclusion of the article, he does not mumble and he does not have dentures.
WIT: Well, I think some of it is more personal than social, I in that l chose to associate with scientists rather than humanists because I found it more intellectually exciting. As a writer, I was looking for material, cosmological material, that I could then transform into poetry or essays. I wanted a universe. I wanted poems with a cosmological vision. I wanted to hear stories about what the universe was all about from Big Bang to Black Hole. Back when I was a graduate student at Cornell, this wasn't coming tome from the literary scholars and teachers around me; they were extremely specialized into research methodologies, like "Bibliography and Method." Literature at that time was just about to go from structuralism to poststructuralism and deconstructionism, so it was going to become even more anti-literary. In order to be true to the spirit of literature as telling a story of the universe—in Brian Swimme's terms —I had to leave "Eng Lit" and go into other areas, first history, then natural history.
I guess the reason for this dissatisfaction with the subculture of professional literature has its roots in the personal, biographical dimension. When I was eighteen I had to take a year off between high school and college to recover from several operations for cancer of the thyroid. While I was recuperating, I remember reading Whitehead's Science and the Modern World, when a Daimonic voice in my head said: "When the twentieth century puts itself back together, it will be with this philosophy of organism." I was entranced with the vastness of Whitehead's European culture, of his range from poetry to physics. In his essay on Shelley and romantic poetry, he remarked that Shelley had the makings of a great chemist. I found that simply amazing. I wasn't encountering that kind of poetic or scientific world in Los Angeles High School. Piaget says that every seventeen or eighteen-year-old has a life vision in which he or she sets out a project to work on for life—he has this wonderful description in which he says that every teenager has an image of his statue already up in a park in Paris. My adolescent psychic inflation was that I wanted to be the Dante of a new age and I wanted Whitehead to be my Aquinas. Whitehead was to provide me with the material, the cosmological vision of a processive universe that I would then try to spin into lyric poetry. I never had any ambition to become a scientist myself because I am a real dummy in science and hopelessly bad in mathematics.
AZ: But you didn't pick the Newtonian classical scientist type. Voltaire put into prose Newton's Principia and optics without the forms. But you chose to celebrate some very daring and new thinkers.
WIT: Well, that was also coming from Whitehead's influence, because he was going his own way. When I went to college I discovered that my enthusiasm for Whitehead was shared by none. Everyone was into Wittgenstein, Ayer, and logical positivism, or Austin. Everyone was into an imperialistic scientism instead of the cosmological, celebrative reverence of Whitehead. I was always interested in a cosmological expansion and never a reductionistic constriction. It was a visceral response. The kind of snarky, A. J. Ayer Language Truth and Logic that they gave me in my freshman year produced an allergic reaction. I thought it was small, mean-spirited. Ayer seemed to be a nasty little man with nothing of the big picture of Whitehead. I liked Whitehead because he was affirming poetry and sacred and religious values and at the same time writing about Einstein and Reimann. Even though I couldn’t understand it--the chapter on relativity, after all, is very hard, even hard for some physics majors to understand.
When I got my Ph.D. and was faced with choosing where I wanted to teach—those were the days, when you had choices—I was offered jobs at Cornell, MIT, Stanford, and Pomona College, which would not happen now no matter how good you were. I chose MIT. Everybody at Cornell thought I was nuts. "You are turning down Stanford and Cornell to go teach baby humanities to engineers!" But I didn't want to teach English majors how to be English majors to teach other English majors how to train more English majors. I wanted to be in an environment of science to teach the big picture of literature to scientists. But it was the sixties and the social reality of MIT and the war in Vietnam hit me right in the face. MIT had become the Vatican of the First Global Church of Technology. Science was not lyrical, but tough, aggressive, and nasty. The environment of technology at MIT was very anti-philosophic, even anti-scientific. I kept looking around and thinking, but where is the science of Whitehead? These guys were all working for the Department of Defense; they were all into power. So I was out of step with the times, lost in prewar reveries of poetry and science when the bomb and World War II had changed "Science and the Modern World" utterly. I just couldn't find anybody at all like Whitehead. Cyril Stanley Smith in the Department of Metallurgy came close, because he was very cultured and had a deep interest in art. His lectures were profound visions of structure and process, but there was no real way that I could work with him in a metallurgy lab, so nothing came of it. I was basically looking at science as a form of enchantment. The scientist was the bard of our era who would tell us the story of how the universe was created, how the stars came to be, the nature of space and time, and what makes a molecule hold together.
I spent three years at MIT getting nowhere, but I got promoted every year. I became more and more dissatisfied; I felt that these people weren't really my colleagues. I was looking for what Jim Lovelock has called "the scientist as composer." Jim asked himself, ``Why can't the scientist be like the composer or the poet to live in a cottage in a wonderful landscape instead of in a big ugly lab in a technoslum? Why do scientists have to live with ugliness?" I quit MIT right when they promoted me to Associate Professor at the age of twenty nine, and began a search for different sorts of thinkers. And that did the trick, fort did then begin to meet people like Marshall McLuhan, Ivan Illich, and Gregory Bateson. For four years, I taught in Toronto, happy to be out of the American Empire, but as my Canadian university also wanted to become another MIT with its own local Route 128, I found that I had to quit the institution of the university and not just one in hopes of finding another. When I launched myself into Lindisfarne, I really began to meet more visionary scientists. Through discussions with Gregory Bateson, we decided to invite Francisco Varela to Lindisfarne, and through discussions with Varela and Maturana, I began to feel that we were approaching a whole new kind of synthesis.
I remember in one of my books, Darkness and Scattered Light—based on lectures that I gave for the opening of Lindisfarne-in Manhattan in 1976—saying that there was going to be a new planetary dynamical theory that would be to our age what Darwin's had been to the nineteenth century. This was just was just a couple of months before I began to be very familiar with the Gaia material. I started reading about the Gaia Hypothesis in The Co-Evolution Quarterly and then eventually I invited Lynn Margulis and Jim Lovelock to a Lindisfarne meeting. We became friends immediately and Jim and Lynn liked the intellectual mix of Lindisfarne and became Fellows. And it was a good mix of scientists like Heinz Pagels, Wes Jackson, Jim Lovelock, Lynn Margulis, Henri Atlan from Paris and Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana from Santiago.
It was my role to present an imaginary landscape in which all their works were situated—to try to connect the immunology theory of Varela to say, "Well, from my point of view Gaia is the immune system of the planet." I was the first to use that as a metaphor and then Varela picked it up in his writing and has since used it in some papers he has done for the Santa Fe Institute, but this was a point I was making in our discussions in Paris for Lindisfarne's "Program in Biology, Cognition, and Ethics."
When I would make these connections, which are basically metaphoric connections, science was the content but not the structure of my wow Science was basically raw material, ore, that I would refine like a smith or a jeweler and turn it into metaphor. The kind of scientists or engineers who were uncomfortable with metaphoric thinking would sense the strangeness of what I was doing, become alienated, and often angry. The kind of scientist with an idolatrous faith in technology. One who regards metaphor as a falsification of "reality" as matter, you know the kind of guy who thinks that metaphor is just a vague copy of the real thing--these sorts would flip out in anger and frustration. At the Lindisfarne Conference of 1975 with Jonas Salk and Gregory Bateson, these two types--Pythagorean and Archimedean, wave and particle--collided. In the wrap-up lecture I contrasted Jonas Salk’s approach to global management with Gregory Bateson’s and John Todd’s approach to ecology. I classified Jonas Salk’s as the mandarin Confucian approach to world order, one where there would be the rule of "the survival of the wisest," with an elitist and hierarchical approach to global management. Bateson’s was the more Taoist approach, a decentralist, ecologically more complex model, not the centralizing, imperial model of Big Science. In my talk, I went through a series of metaphoric unpackings of the philosophies, and one engineer--he had studied at MIT and was working as a free-lance engineering consultant, threw down his notebook and said, "I’ve had it with metaphoric thinking!" He flipped out and went into acute disorientation anxiety. Bateson came to my defense and said: "It takes one to know one, and Bill’s got it." So the kind of scientists who haven’t flipped out and become angry with me, but have instead consented to become part of the Lindisfarne Fellowship, have a respect, or trust, or love, for metaphor and the mythopoeic imagination. Just like you Arthur.
Anyway, whenever I come across these people who are, shall we say more Platonic than Aristotelian--although obviously Lovelock’s biology is more embedded in the Aristotelian process from one point of view--we end up having a conversation that grows into a conference or a consort. It’s the difference between Heisenberg and most of the technicians I met at MIT. Actually, when I did have a conversation with Heisenberg, we got on fine and we talked nonstop for about two hours. We were able to communicate across this vast abyss of his knowledge of science and mine. There are some people in our culture who understand that science shares with poetry deep roots in myth, in narrative ideas of order and process. These sorts of scientists such as Heisenberg or C. H. Waddington, like music and art and like to hang out with artists. Those who take for granted that there is some objective, real matter that they are going to manipulate and be in charge of, they don’t like artists at all and prefer to hang out with politicians and people in power who seem to be in control of society. Like Teller, these guys are basically control freaks. They hate ambiguity; they hate complexity. They want to simplify everything and in simplifying it they basically want to take control. Their form of taking control is to eliminate everything that is other than their way of handling matter. So you get rid of women, you get rid of poets, you get rid of anything that is "other"—you get rid of political dissent and you create a military-industrial complex as a substitution for nature.
AZ: I'd like to focus on this. You started out with a visceral response to Whitehead and a desire to find the scientists who would speak the language of Whitehead to your poetic mind. You could then sing that song of the universe, which they would be struggling to sing in their own languages of mathematics and what have you. And then in searching for this at places like MIT, you were disillusioned with what you found there—that most of the people there except for Cyril Stanley Smith wanted to have nothing to do with that Whiteheadian kind of science or with your metaphors for what they considered to be the facts of nature. And so you had that tension. And again, at this point it was a personal set of experiences. You were just acting on the sense data, your own set of feelings. And then you began to meet people from whom you were getting all the right signals. You began to find colleagues, to discover that there was a community of scientists who, even if they didn't know it fully, resonated with what you were looking for as a young person, even at eighteen. All of that is in some ways completely out of the. personal.
If you now, as a senior statesman, so to speak, step back from your own life and see-what it is you were looking for, what is it that characterizes those scientists or that kind of science that you think is so important?
WIT: Well, I think there are archetypally two personality types. When I was teaching at MIT, the Registrar said at one of our faculty meetings that there were two tracks for students at MIT. There were those who took their electives in humanities and music, and they tended to be physics majors; and there were those who took their elective courses in economics and political science, and they tend to be engineering majors. And I thought, "Hey this is the old Pytagorean-Archmidean split, or Oprhic-Archimedean--whichever archetype you prefer to use to describe this pattern. And all through the year after I left MIT, I kept seeing this pattern coming up. Those who were more Archimedean were interested in creating defense systems for the state, or interest in clever technologies of control; they were interested basically in the lust for wealth and power. I was basically interested in enchantment, and so I was more interested in the Pythagorean fascination for "Studying the monochord." I think what is common to all of us--the scientists I could resonate with--is that we were all interested in what Gregory Bateson called "the pattern that connects." The wave more than the particle. The scientist who smashes atoms to get control of particles is out to create a new cultural government of nature. By manipulating the particles, you can pretend to have an explanation with which you can govern, first the particles, then the institutionalization of that knowledge in a scientific civilization.
Now Lovelock s basically a kind of cosmologist with a vision of how the little relates to the large. He is always moving from the little to the large. But he is supremely good with the little. That is how he made his mark to become an inventor of independent means--by creating the electron capture device, an instrument that detects gas molecules in parts per million. Lovelock invented the device that helped scientists detect the ozone hole. So he is very, very good at the little, but he could always jump up to this larger level of understanding. He had an imagination and could say, "Aha! there are planetary dynamics going on here. The plankton outgassing is affecting the clouds and the whole albedo of the planet." Like Darwin, Lovelock did go off on his own "Voyage of the Beagle" to the Galapagos, so he was not restricted to tunnel vision in a big government lab. This quality of the hero’s journey has what Joseph Campbell called "the monomythic pattern" of separation from the group, initiation into some sort of larger vision, and then return to society to present the larger theory. Jim and Gregory Bateson are both good examples of this pattern; Gregory’s separation from his father and St. John’s College, Cambridge, his initiation into schizmogenesis in Melanesia, and his return to society in the Macy Conferences to help take part in the birth of the new science of cybernetics. I read Bateson’s Naven before I ever met him; actually, I used his work in my undergraduate honor’s thesis.
AZ: Let’s take Bateson’s "patterns that connect." You could argue that even the engineer is interested in the patterns of machine technology or the patterns of electronic interface. And yet I feel when you say, or Bateson said, "patterns that connect," there is another level of meaning or complexity in the way that you make these connections and in the laws that govern them than there is when people in engineering departments talk about complex systems.
WIT: Well, with engineers it's always basically simplification and reduction of process into code. The brain becomes a computational, information-processing machine. Consciousness is reduced to a gate of 1-0, and so the Churchlands will say that consciousness is just a multiplication of gates. And if you get enough neuronal nets with their quantified weights and gates going 1-0, you can have a big chip and a brain. So there is not an appreciation of complexity; the whole notion is to go in the opposite direction. What I think is characteristic of Gregory Bateson and James Lovelock is that they will both go into the field, as Gregory did in Bali and Indonesia, and they'll do meticulous research—on the Iatmul ritual or atmospheric gases in Antarctica—and then they’ll jump up to the imaginative level of narrative science. ~ think these other scientists get very nervous with generalizations and narrative. They suffer from a kind of cultural aphasia, you know, the kind of mental dysfunction in which the patient can mention the time as a lower element of description, but if you ask him, "What time is it?" the aphasic will freak out. He can't handle higher categories and generalizations. Our culture tends to reward those who specialize and deal in very discrete kinds of research. Sometimes good scientists learn to play the game by writing research proposals to get the money, and then using the money to do more basic research, interesting work that is more at the edge of knowledge.
So I think this quality of "the pattern that connects" is a feature of a narrative imagination. These sorts of scientist have more of an imagination. Think of Lynn Margulis. She can study spirochetes and how they become attached to large protists, but then--"Eureka"--something pops in her imagination and she extends the architecture to axons and neurons, itotitc spindles, spermatazoa and ova. This is what separates schoolgirls from the women like MacClintock and Margulis. Her ability to go from spirochetes to axons is breathtaking. It entranced me right away and made it possible for us to develop a friendship, because her theory of symbiosis in cell evolution is basically the pattern that connects. And this quality is the same kind of imagination that Jim Lovelock has or Francisco Varela has. Varela can move from cockroach motor reflexes to color vision to immunology.
AZ: One of the things I am most interested in is this quality or character of imagination. Is it a different way of seeing whatever everyone else has been seeing in one particular habitual form, a quality of imagination that allows a person to see patterns that connect in ways that are fresh and new? Against a background of someone like a Gebser, or a Barfield, or a Steiner, is that indicative of a shift? I’m curious about when, as an eighteen-year-old, you had a presentiment of that new kind of imagining or new kind of seeing, and you were looking for partners in the project. And you found them. You didn’t find them where you thought you would find them in the establishment but you began to find people who were seeker-persons in the establishment or on the fringes of the establishment who . . .
WIT: Yes, they were all marginal people. You know Lynn Margulis was punished for years for her theory of symbiosis. Then comes the usual pattern of herd behavior where the clerks of science go from ridicule to patronization in which they say, "Oh, we’ve known that all along." But Margulis doesn’t get rewarded for it. She keeps getting turned down by the empire of NSF, and for years she has had to do all her work with grad students because she hasn’t had the funds to support a team of postdocs. I remember a professor at the University of Hawaii saying to a graduate student interested in Bateson, "You don’t have to study Bateson, he’s marginal to the field." Field, of course, meaning the clerks like him who show up faithfully at the national meetings and slave markets. Jim Lovelock is marginal. He’s not in a major chair. Lynn was at Boston University and not Harvard. Varela is in Paris, not at Harvard or Johns Hopkins. I remember once talking to Heinz Pagels, and he said, "Why are you so interested in Varela? He’s marginal, a European bullshiter and not a real experimental scientist." So what is characteristic of all the scientists that I have been attracted to is that they are more shamans than high priests. Thomas Kuhn said that paradigm shifts are always from people new to or outside the field; they don't come from the endowed chairs of the old paradigm. I think that's the character trait of all the people I work with. They're all marginal, but they're not mad.
AZ: Can you characterize this shift for me a little bit? I don’t care if you go into the language of Gebser or the language or Barfield or whatever language you would like to use. What is this paradigm shift or new imagining?
WIT: Well, again it's Whitehead's influence. As a teenager I came across a broken civilization, and I was unhappy with the breaks between religion and science, between art and economics. As an ex-Catholic, I knew that the Church and the old Thomistic paradigm would not work for the modern world. The modern world was basically created by Protestantism—"the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism." The medieval world was created by Catholicism. In the conflict between imagination and technology, I wanted to try to find a way to bring poetry and the artistic and the aesthetic and the mystical and the Pythagorean back in—the Pythagorean, or the Orphic, versus the Archimedean. I sensed that things were out of balance and I assumed that the next culture would have to heal that split. So there I was trying to heal from my own cancer, reading Whitehead and worrying about the cancer of my own civilization. The culture was suffering from industrial cancer. Remember, this is the fifties, when the world was hovering on the edge of thermonuclear annihilation. This was at the peak of the Cold War, in the smog of L.A. Somedays the smog was so bad that my eyes hurt and I couldn’t see to drive. Cars, and bombs, and TV: L.A. was all technology and no culture except for Entertainment within a dying nature. I was a romantic, I wanted the deep and rich culture that I saw expressed in Whitehead, and I wanted Nature back. It was a ease of longing, a longing for the sacred.
The sacred, I think, is basically a reunification of the part with the whole, re-ligio. In that sense the technologists are the ones who tear the part out of the whole and take it out of context. But if you look at the difference between, let's say, between the science of Barbara MacClintock and Jacob and Monad, or Crick and Watson, then you can see that there are these men working with big bucks in big laboratories who take a gene out of the context of its DNA molecule, take the DNA molecule out of the context of the nucleus, and then take the nucleus out of the context of the cytoplasm and the whole very complicated ecology of the cell—not to mention the extracellular matrix and all the complex dynamics going on there, and not to mention the whole embeddedness of a complete organisms in a complex ecologies. They isolate a gene, map a single trait on to a single gene, and get rich by meeting the demands of the pharmaceutical, biotechnological corporations. Barbara MacClintock was growing corn slowly, having to wait for nature's time, and watching whole organisms in concert with the complex dynamical systems of soil and air and atmosphere. And she paid the price for doing it her way.
So if you look at Barbara MacClintock and her "feeling for the organism," it's basically a feeling for the whole through an imagination that connects the little to the large again. Barbara MacClintock, Lynn Margulis, Gregory Bateson, and km Lovelock—they all have this characteristic that they have a feeling for the organism because they basically have an imagination that is able to connect the little to the large. There's an emotional comfort with ambiguity The Marvin Minsky and Churchland types, they basically become very, very unsettled by ambiguity, complexity, by play, delight, enchantment. They'll dismiss it by saying, "Oh that's all bullshit!" but basically it terrifies them. And also it's the kind of knowledge that doesn't empower you; it isn't necessarily going to make you rich and lead to the industrial-military complex and Route 128 around MIT. Gregory Bateson is a good example. If you have this kind of knowledge, you don't become the master of a research empire in the way that you do if you're Crick or Edelman at San Diego.
AZ: I love this phrase, "connecting the little to the large." You have on the one hand a stream of thinking which is constantly seeking to disconnect the little from the large, the thing from its context, and then, having gotten down to the single set of base pairs, to find that gene that translates to a trait, and of course being frustrated when you find the huge variability that is somehow associated with contextualizing that particular gene—in the way it expresses itself. It becomes so extraordinarily complex that you feel a little discouraged and surprised perhaps.
Maybe that will become part of a kind of realization at some point. But then you have the other set of folks whose whole methodology is to live with the discomfort of reconnecting or seeing the little within the large and realizing that actually, that symbiotic relationship comes to expression where you are not sure you can even tell what the parts and the wholes are. Somehow the discomfort that you feel when it's not just the assembly of parts that creates the whole is part of the new ontology. It's a new thing. It's not just confusion, it's actually the point.
WIT: But when one connects the little to the large, what enables that to take place is an imaginative "hypertext" space in which they can come together. You create around the little an imaginary or visionary space, and then in that visionary space you access other higher-dimensional spaces that enable you to see homologous patterns. This is, I think, a characteristic of the poetic imagination that can border on lunacy in the way that Shakespeare said, that "the poet, the lunatic and the lover are of imagination all compact." For example, I remember once getting a little too far out for Gregory when I took Edgerton's photograph, the milk drop makes a splash in the form of a crown, but at the top of the crown are like drops that themselves are about to fall off and become lime drops. So the whole thing is "self-similar" and fractal. When Edgerton made the photograph at MIT, we didn't have the Mandelbrot Set and the imagery of fractals yet. But when I looked at the four-fold structure of drop, crown, spike, and smaller drop, I began raving about fourfold Carnot cycles in thermodynamics, and about the stylistic progression of the development of Maya pyramids—of Archaic, Classic, Baroque, and Archaistic. You know, the form of the Mayan pyramid goes from a simple peasant's hut on top a mound, which is the Archaic, to a higher stepped pyramid, which is the Classic, and then to an extremely high pyramid in which the hut is unusable and is simply a decorative roof-comb—this is the Baroque—and then in a romantic reaction to get back to its roots, the roof comb drops back to Earth again and becomes a peasant hut again. This is the Archaistic, the conscious civilized return to the archaic, a form of Romantic Revival. I would claim that this is how imagination works. Margulis looks at a spirochete attached to a protist and sees an axon attached to a neuron. I look at Edgerton's photograph of the milkdrop and I see the development of Mayan architecture. People who do this we call imaginative, or nuts, or both.
Anyway, all this was just too wiggy for Gregory. And he got very huffy. And he said, "Now, look, Bill, you just can't do this. These are separate domains. A milk drop is a' impact and is a physical subsystem, and a pyramid is a' expression of consciousness. The physical system work. through impacts, but the other works through triggerings of "difference." Although Bateson always wanted to over come Cartesian dualism, he always kept falling back into it, with his split between "the Creatura and the Pleroma," the split between the world of physical impacts and mental differences. I was being more of a Pythagorean and seeing patterns as "ideas in the mind of God" which could express themselves in milk drops, snowflakes, cathedrals, or Mayan pyramids. But this kind of accessing hidden connections in a hypertext space does border on a kind of paranoia, so to make it work responsibly in society takes a lot of sorting out the noise from the noia, which is just what the Lovelocks and Margulises can do.
I think a characteristic of the imagination is the ability to move up into another, imaginative fourth dimension—another level of category formation or metanoia—in which discrete cognitive domains are cross-referenced. Everytime I look as a cultural historian at paradigm breakthroughs, I see a pattern in which the scientist takes something that's over here in a different field—bacteriology—and applies it to a field where it hasn't been used before—neurology. And when that happens someone says, "Wow, I never thought of that before." They didn't think of that before because they were thinking within the restrictive cognitive domain in which they had been trained. To break out of it, or shift unconsciously, sometimes they need to dream. This was the case of Kekule and the benzene ring. Or sleep on it and forget about it for a while. As when Poincare stepped up on the tram and the solution to the theorem flashed into his head. Or just forget about physics and go have a beer. And then when Glaser is staring at the bubbles in his glass of beer, he sees the bubble chamber for particle physics he is going to invent.
The scientists who are able to do this haven't been overtrained. Generally, training—as opposed to education —grinds imagination out of you. Imagination is considered sloppy, irrational, irresponsible, or poetic bullshit. The scientists who are great have good training, so they aren't just bullshitting, but they also are able to hold onto this innocence of imagination in which they can flip out of that training mode, scan a very wide field, scan a hyperspace and reach into something over there that seems irrelevant to this here. So it's a union of opposites, the old Alchemical Wedding of the "conjunctio oppositorum."
Since I have no training in science, I can't do it by myself. I have to link up with scientists in a sort of symbiotic friendship. I have imagination but no training, so I am always out there at the edge of lunacy.
Most often, scientists—even poets or professors of Eng Lit—are excessively trained. Some people somehow survive their education. Jim Lovelock is a good example. They're able to keep their imaginations intact so when the come to particular problems, they become quiet and still in a very contemplative way; they shift to this other hype space, this "hypertext"—whatever you want to call it. Those people who have been overtrained just don't trust themselves, or they have bought too deeply into the scientific materialistic culture to access this meta-level. Some times ordinary scientists who aren't card-carrying contemplatives will stumble into this meta-level by accident, by going to sleep so that the next morning they wake US and the new knowledge is there. I think if someone is more yogically sensitive they can go into that reverie without having to go to sleep.
So I think what you're trying to get at in terms of asking about the nature of scientific creativity is that it has this in common. It's not just the shifting from the little to the large, and it's not just imagination. We have to ask ourselves what do we mean when we use that term, "imagination." A seemingly irrelevant image comes from another cognitive domain. And I think this particular quality is not just part of a new culture—to go back to your other question about Jean Gebser and Owen Barfield—because this preconscious scanning of disparate cognitive domains that produces a link between benzene rings and serpents biting their tails is characteristic of the dreaming mind and the modern artistic mind, from the ancient author of the Gilgamesh Epic to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
This particular quality is, I think, inherent in language, because as Lakoff and Johnson have shown, language is inherently metaphoric. They have done research on how children develop language and how words that we don't think are metaphoric are actually old metaphors, and we walk over them like paths in the forest that have been worn down by previous generations. We don't realize that words like "realize" or like "word" are actually old metaphors from a couple of thousand years ago. And so I think language is inherently metaphoric and that this nature of the imagination we are talking about is not something that is coming up now with this new culture. What is coming up with this new culture is that a story has been created about how science works, but it is actually not true. Some cultural historians of science like Feyerabend have shown just how false this textbook reconstruction of scientific history is. When you look at the actual imaginative process of creativity in science, it is very close to the imaginative process of art, even of mysticism. So if that's the case, why are we folk in the humanities separated by half a quad and light years from the scientists?
Once I quit MIT and went around and found these scientists as friends and colleagues, I was able to put together a culture through the form of the Lindisfarne Fellowship that was more like the culture I had glimpsed in Whitehead's books. What the Fellows had in common was this Alchemical Wedding of opposites, this ability to shift levels, the ability to be open to other fields, to have a quality of educated innocence in which they survived their training. They all had a delight in complexity and therefore a delight in the intellectual ensemble of Lindisfarne, because they could see and learn new things from conversations with people in other fields. And so Lynn Margulis or Jim Lovelock would enjoy hanging out at the Lindisfarne meetings, though ordinarily the kind of thing like Lindisfarne is not what you would expect Margulis and Lovelock to take part in. When I asked Jim—the first time he had ever actually met the people assembled for that '81 Lindisfarne meeting—folks like Wendell Berry, Wes Jackson, Heinz and Elaine Pagels, Henri Atlan, Heinz van Forster, Maturana and Varela—Jim said it never happened at professional meetings. The normal scientific meetings were only of specialists, of atmospheric chemists in giant hotels in Tokyo or Las Vegas.
AZ: Those are the only people who are there.
WIT: When I was preparing for my discussion with Heisenberg, I read a couple of his books and I was fascinated to see that a lot of the European science of his time had been advanced through skiing holidays in the Alps. Basically, quantum physics was a series of conversations among friends on skiing holidays in the Alps! "Ah but, my dear Karl Friedrich, your point about antipositrons is quite wicked. . . ." Dirac, Pauli, Niels Bohr and Heisenberg: they were all hanging out together in these intellectual chamber music ensembles. And they also loved art and—
AZ: And they did actually play music together.
WIT: Right. Heisenberg played the piano and Einstein played the violin. Slowly, I am told. So when I read Heisenberg's book, I thought: "Hey, this isn't the way it's supposed to be in the Good Old USA. These guys are all supposed to be nerds." And in America they do tend to be nerds. But these guys were all trained in the European Gymnasium, so they read Homer in Greek in high school. And that's a world that we've lost even more in the nineties. I at least read Virgil in Latin in high school in the fifties.
AZ: I remember the great story of Heisenberg on top of the university gymnasium, reading Plato's Timaeus and wondering about the great symmetries and geometrical atomism of nature. And then later on, connecting that to his own studies of group theory and symmetries in nature, and seeing that these symmetries as he imagined them were nothing but Plato's own symmetries in another language, a modern language. And you just think, who in high school is reading Plato's Timaeus in Greek? Not me.
WIT: Yes, it's an education that's long gone.
AZ: But coming back to this theme of religio or connection and this imaginal space into which scientists from all times, and not just scientists but poets, creative individuals of all kinds, have popped. You're stuck, you've got a problem, and you realize that the old ways of seeing the situation are just not going to get you through this. You have a question that the old answers are not addressing. For example, if you think of the universe, the cosmology of the past: What was the problem with the cosmology of the past for Galileo or for a Kepler? Kepler especially loved the cosmology of the past —the astrological implications, the great mythic dimensions, the god who is geometrizing—all of that was perfectly okay, and yet there was a missing piece, which required a new imaginal act on his part.
WIT: Well, I think as things picked up, the poetic, or the visionary, the mythopoeic, began increasingly to be expelled. In the early days of the Royal Society, it had its roots in the Rosicrucian Enlightenment—in the way that Francis Yates has explicated. But as the official textbook Newton is constructed (not the occult Newton with his black box computations on prophecies of Daniel and the temple in Jerusalem), science begins to become a church with it orthodoxy and the Royal Society becomes a College of Cardinals. Feyerabend's "textbook science" takes over. And I think with the rise of the modern industrial state, wit mass education and its need for textbooks, nobody wants to hear about complexity or the mythic roots of science.
When I talked to people like Gregory Bateson, there we always a bit of that old St. John's College, Cambridge in his Education was a conversation among gentlemen; it was a oral culture. They all knew one another personally. "O! Bertie said this..." I remember how astonished I was one when Gregory and I were discussing Whitehead. And Gregory talked about being at the meeting in which Whitehead made the famous comment about Bertrand Russell's talk on relativity—the one in which Whitehead said that Bertie was to be congratulated on not obscuring the inherent darkness of the subject. I mean, I was struck dumb. Whitehead was for me a mythic figure. It was for me as a working class kid from L.A., desperately trying to work his way out of the antintellectualism of the McCarthy era, as if someone had known Shakespeare. These people were archetypes for me, not people from the real world. Like those skiing holidays of Heisenberg, it was a whole other world.
Of course, it has both light and shadow. It's very aristocratic, and so the career open to talents that we have in America is not quite so open there, and a young working-class Irishman such as I would have a tough time in that world. I read with a working class ferocity and avarice, but Gregory didn't read very much. Education for him was conversation with his peers, so he never bothered to read Varela. A gentleman need never be in a vulgar rush to get on. But I was always exactly in a vulgar rush to get the hell out of L.A. Anyway, that too is a world that's gone. With the decline of pre-war elites and the rise of the postwar corporate-state, textbooks that enforced ignorance on the students replaced books and classics. Students now never read whole books; they read answers to questions that will be on the exams. They don't approach science as a form of cosmology that has its roots in myth and art. It's all training for them to become chemists for Dupont or Monsanto. And because they don't connect the real history of their science to their practice, when they come to apply their knowledge to the environment, they make one hell of a mess. If they don't know the relationship of chemical theory to chemistry, then there's no way that they're going to know the relationship of chemistry to ecology.
AZ: Or even real chemistry.
WIT: Yes, it's just a series of collective procedures. Think of the rise of institutions that Foucault has tracked—the rise of the hospital, the rise of the insane asylum, the rise of the technical institute, an MIT. And we need to remember that institutions like MIT, which is an American imitation of the Ecole that was created by Napoleon, that they're all part of the rise of the modern nation-state, part of Napoleon's desire to create a United States of Europe. Carnot and the new science of thermodynamics, they're all coming out of the militarization of science.
AZ: I'd like to summarize a little bit, just to make sure I have it, because it seems to me there are a couple of themes that are really critical. One has to do with the separation of the mythopoeic, the imaginal, the mythic, you might say the soul, the enchantment, from science. And you see that coming in after the Rosicrucian enlightenment by the sixteenth, seventeenth century, with the rise of the world society, and so forth. Those elements are distanced from positive knowledge. On the other hand, some of the things you talked about earlier had to do with simplification. alto sustain positive knowledge in the face of the mythic, well that's too complicated, so we're going to separate out the mythic. And more than that, we're also going to simplify even the physical knowledge so that we have a set of discrete parts that work in a well-defined and articulated way, and now we have power. Now we have the possibility of arming ourselves over all these different individuals with all this different knowledge, harnessing it, and mobilizing an economy, mobilizing an army, mobilizing apolitical reality, what ever it is. It's a kind of arithmetic, one plus one plus one plus one. And we get this great force.
You're lamenting that which has been forced on us by institutions, or at least has been supported by institutions—the Ecole Polytechnique, the MIT. What are the other institutions that supported this in the past? I would like to shift to the institutional question. To say if people like Lynn Margulis and Bateson and so forth are marginalized but nonetheless are bringing forward new ideas, what are the institutions of the future that would take this infection and bring it into the organism, and then allow it to develop in the context of these new kinds of thoughts? Or at least provoke through these new kinds of thoughts?
WIT: Well, there are institutions and then there are enzymes that work at large in culture to break down or connect. In the past there have been Pythagoras’ Academy in Renaissance Florence. Although on the surface Ficino’s Academy seems to have been incredibly conservative, even reactionary, in trying to go back to classical Greece--this was from the influence of Ficino on Gemistos Plethon--it was also moving forward and reacting against the medieval synthesis of culture, the dominance of Aquinas and Aristotle. In ancient Greece, Pythagoras’ Academy was a classic example of the small school that effects a cultural shift. Pythagoras wandered the ancient world. he was a prisoner of war in Mesopotamia and came to know Chaldean astronomy as well as the traditions of the Egyptian temple school. So he had a very strong, clear understanding of hierarchical and highly organized temple knowledge subsidized by the theocratic state, but he chose to take a radical turn to create a secular institution. This was the beginning of the modern university. When Pythagoras came to southern Italy and Crotona, he spoke first to the women, then the young. Finally the hierarchy of the political elders invited him to address their assembly. It's a classic pattern—almost out of the pages of primatology— where the dominant male hierarchy is the last to accept change.
Pythagoras seems to have raised marginality to a high art. Over the centuries, the Academy moved from edge to center, from Crotona to Athens to Alexandria. So if we look at Pythagoras' Academy, then Plato's Academy, then the Irish monastic schools in the Dark Ages, the Cathedral school of Chartres, then Ficino's Academy in the Italian Renaissance, we can see that there have always been these little enzymatic schools that work with a different dynamic from the dominant institutions of a society or civilization. Sometimes they don't even have to be schools, they can be things like Yeats' Abbey Theatre which served to articulate Romantic nationalism and helped shift Ireland away from the British empire into its own independence. The Bauhaus transformed modern architecture and design. These little institutions can challenge the center from the edge, the marginal. Yeats went to the peasants in the West of Ireland. In both Yeats' movement and the Bauhaus Theosophy and esoteric thought play a big role, even though one is about peasants and folklore and the other is about high tech industrial design. Yeats and A.E. were Theosophists, but so was Kandinsky in the Bauhaus. So marginality can become strategically critical; it's a space that's open for a new evolutionary emergence, a branching off into a new evolutionary direction. If you have institutions where marginalized people like John Todd, Lynn Margulis, and Gregory Bateson are not allowed to express their genius, what happens when you create a cognitive domain in which they can sing out in concert? Now, of course, I didn't consciously plan it that way, it just worked out that way unconsciously as I simply was attracted to people like Todd and Bateson and brought them together through Lindisfarne. It just sort of happened through the dynamic of the conferences.
AZ: But in retrospect it fits into this pattern.
WIT: Yes, I was operating from an intuitive pattern that went all the way back to the Whitehead experience where illness cast me out of institutions and I was in a space that was neither high school nor college. Then later I left the university and ended up in a space called Lindisfarne that was neither the university nor the ashram or commune. Then by some chemistry of elective affinities, Bateson led to Varela, led to Lovelock and Margulis, and on down the line to people like you and David Finkelstein and Stuart Kaufmann. Once you get a critical mass then more people become interested in the concert. But it has a consistency. Those who have the right receptors to link at the edge are those who become activated by the conversation.
I think there are small, non-institutional groups that can effect a shift from one culture to another, and they do this generally by bringing together people who have been marginalized by the powers of the center. The association of all these marginal people empowers them; it uplifts and encourages them and gives them a form of imaginative delight and re-enchantment. The institutional spaces of the Center tend to intimidate and disempower, to use a new age cliché. So there's always this sort of play between the little enzyme and the large institution.
There is, of course, a shadow-side to marginality, because you are literally that--you are marginal to the dominant institutions. So you don’t have the funding; you can’t train the next generation. In the Darwinian sense of selection and reproduction, the big graduate schools clone their professors and send them out to take over all the other universities and colleges in the country. Those of us in the marginal groups like Lindisfarne can’t train our own graduate students to go out and duplicate ourselves to create futures for us. So these sorts of Ivan Illich "counterfoil institutions" tends to have a life of only one generation. They capture a particular, a very specific Zeitgeist--whether it is the Bauhaus or Jung's Eranos circle or the skiing holidays o the Copenhagen circle of Niels Bohr, Heisenberg and von Weizsacker. Then the kairos passes away with that generation and passes to a different group, often not direct!: connected. So you have Eranos and then Lindisfarne, or the Abbey Theatre and then Black Mountain College. Some times individuals can move from one enzymatic group to another, and so connect their histories. Albers went from Bauhaus to Black Mountain College. Nancy Wilson Ross was a student at Bauhaus in the thirties and then helper Lindisfarne get started in New York in the seventies.
Sometimes this shift of the kairos or Zeitgeist is a flip of opposites, say, for example, from the skiing holidays of the Copenhagen Circle to Los Alamos and the bomb. Then that too flips when the Cold War ends—when big bucks for bid bombs ends—and all those guys get restless and re-invent themselves and Los Alamos spins off spark and sets up the Santa Fe Institute. The Santa Fe Institute is kind of weird because at one level it's a group of marginal, visionary types, but at another level they're all high rollers. They're all big people who've succeeded at the major universities of our time and in the casinos of big funding for Big Science. They're moving in the direction of creating an institution that's going to be a pretty big, successful, established institution. But one part of them, I think, wants to have some kind of Lindisfarne thing, and the other part wants to have an institution with a budget of many millions of dollars. I guess there's the difference between a Murray Gell-Mann and a Stuart Kaufmann. Murray Gell-Mann is your Nobel laureate superstar and Stuart Kaufmann is someone who is brilliant but has always been somewhat to the side of the mainstream. Even the fact that he’s an M.D. not a Ph.D. has given him a different life history from your routine laboratory scientist.
AZ: In the past there have been institutions that supported the conventional science or conventional morality of the time, the Church or the established university and academy structures of England and France, and then, later on, of the United States. At a place like Lindisfarne, people have been trained within these structures, but they like you have read Whitehead or Bateson. Somehow, through their own experiences, they have a whole set of residual questions, antipathies, yearnings, that aren't satisfied within the established academy, university, church structures. And through those experiences they are led to meet other individuals in a informal way, in this case through you, wandering the planet, inviting a few people to get together: "Do you know anybody else who is like this? Why don’t you invite them in, let me meet somebody." Whether it's through Evan showing up on my doorstep or you showing up on Heisenberg's doorstep, somehow a network establishes itself. Now do you see that as a first pass or a characteristic of the way it will always be?
WIT: No, I think it's transitional. Some new evolutionary form is trying to emerge: a conscious evolution that is part of the evolution of consciousness. Sometimes there are more informal groups such as artistic groups like the Abbey Theatre. Though the Abbey Theatre-still exists, it has become a normal institution. This is the usual Weberian pattern of "the routinization of charisma." You get the church and then you get the dissatisfied religious person who says the church isn't really religious, so I'm going to create a new religious order. So you get Benedictines and Cistercians and Franciscans and Jesuits. That process has been with us for a very long tame. When the university began to be the Church of our Technological Society, then you got disgruntled intellectuals such as I or John Todd or David Orr or Wendell Berry spinning off into a different space, and trying to constellate some other kind of model—whether it was Esalen, New Alchemy, Lindisfarne or Meadowcreek. The usual pattern is either for them to pass away with their generation—like the Eranos meetings of Jung, in which Henri Corbin, Joseph Campbell, and other interesting people got together for the time of their generation. Or they get endowments and survive their own charismatic deaths to become routinized into normal institutions, like the Abbey Theatre which still exists as an institution of Irish nationalism subsidized by the state. But it's no longer the Abbey Theatre of Yeats and John Millington Synge. You can't have it both ways. When the charisma becomes too routinized, then another group splits off—it's Edgerton's photograph of the milk drop again—another drop splits off from the corona and the process begins all over again.
So let's imagine that the Santa Fe Institute gets big bucks and becomes a big, white male center for competitive, intellectually aggressive, patriarchal science. Then the feminists come along and say, "Hey, ain't nobody but you white guys in there." Hazel Henderson has already criticized the Santa Fe Institute along these lines. She has said, "You guys are getting all these megabucks, but I've been talking about this stuff for twenty five years, back with Prigogine in the sixties." She's right, of course, Hazel has been hanging in there a long time. So let's imagine that there are then dropouts from the Sante Fe Institute—a disgruntled Santa Fe Institute spin-off—you know, the way some disgruntled Williams College faculty split off and created your own Amherst College. And so it goes.
But in terms of Lindisfarne, I see my work very much as transitional. At first, back in 1967, I wanted to create a Lindisfarne within MIT, to have what I called "Richard Feynman College" for science and religion, a place where we could explore the mythopoeic roots of science, looking at the mysticism of Newton and Pascal and Boyle. But basically the leaders of MIT were men of the forties— World War II warriors—and were not interested in my sixties agenda. So Jerry Wiesner said, "No, thank you," and appointed a fellow World War II warrior, George Valley, to head up a new honors college that was designed to have the decorative content of charisma within the controlling structure-of routine. So I quit MIT and went off to Canada, and there I met McLuhan and Ivan Illich, both of whom were, of course, really shaping the thought and culture of the sixties.
Lindisfarne is a new relationship between science and the humanities, and, since it is my shop, I have much more freedom than I would ever have had at MIT—and much less money. So it's been a challenge to keep it alive for twenty two years. As I have often said: "Lindisfarne has died every year for twenty two years." But after twenty two years, you have to recognize that the Zeitgeist, the angel of time that has formed your imagination, has moved on and that a new angel of time with a new generation attuned to it has come in. Most old men deny this process and hang on. A classic example of this was Joseph Campbell. He stopped reading and he always remained locked within the kairos of Jung, Eranos, and the German anthropology of his youth. My generation's take on time is so specific to our angel of time, our Zeitgeist, that we end up thinking the same thought over and over again. Just watch me, or Michael Murphy, or John Todd, think up a new thought or cultural strategy, and notice that it is always another version of the same sixties strategy with which we created Esalen, New Alchemy, and Lindisfarne. So our ability to speak to the next generation—the generation of Tim Kennedy and Evan Thompson—is a big question mark in my mind. I have consciously worked to reach out to this next generation through people like Tim Kennedy. And it may be working, for the intellectual architecture that connects Tim's work in axonal guidance to Lynn Margulis’ work in spirochete attachment was clear, not just to me, but to other Fellows present at the summer and fall meetings.
But I see the next generation of cultural strategies as having to go beyond the shadow and economic problems that Lindisfarne has always had. I would look to institutions such as your proposed Academy or the Santa Fe Institute as the ones that need to carry the energy for the next twenty-two years.
AZ: The Santa Fe Institute is dedicated to the complexity of life, to an anti-reductionist paradigm: as opposed to isolating a single gene, the more genes the better. In fact the only way anything interesting happens, according to Stuart Kaufmann, is when you've got a threshold. Before you've got a zillion genes, nothing much is happening, but once you get enough, then there's all kinds of, almost inevitable, richness of being that will pop out.
Here is a reasonably well-funded place dedicated to an anti- reductionist paradigm of complexity and evolution and so forth. Yet for most of the people there, especially once it gets established and gets more money, there is no real interest in the mythic, no real interest in religio in the sense of connecting to soul or spirit, or the moral, or values.
WIT: Except that individuals like Stuart Kaufmann and Brian Arthur certainly do.
AZ: But as the place becomes more established, one immediately worries that such a concern becomes marginalized as everyone hunkers down to the real complexity. In some ways it's a simplification again. What you simplify is not horizontal—you've kept a horizontal complexity, but it seems to me you've simplified vertically. You've cut off the imaginal space which is the space that links you to metaphor, which has meaning as opposed to just complexity. And the thing that you feel in Lindisfarne is that you're constantly making a link to an imaginal space that is not only outside the scientists' purview, but is a poetic space. That's the complex dimension that I'm worried about. Somehow I feel that evolutionarily, science is being driven to the point where they have to pay attention to Lynn Margulis, they have to pay attention to the Gala hypothesis, they have to pay attention to complex adaptive systems, quantum mechanics...
WIT: Well, I think that Stuart Kaufmann, Brian Arthur, and Joan Halifax are looking to Lindisfarne as a way of touching Santa Fe--like two space stations, Russian and American--—of docking and trying to explore some new forms of collaboration. I think they're interested in using us to intimidate the Santa Fe Institute culturally, to say, "Hey, lighten up, guys. Let's not just become everything we've been trying to get away from in Los Alamos." Which they might, because they're dealing with big bucks in ways that Lindisfarne never has or could. Citicorp Bank is funding them because they think the New Sciences are going to teach them how the new global economy works. They were scared by the crash of '87, when suddenly other patterns of behavior began to disrupt the marketplace. It was not manageable. The news will always say, "the market was volatile today." Well, it's always volatile. They're beginning to understand that something else is going on there and they don’t know what it is.
The kind of funding you get, whether it’s coming from the church or the corporation or the bank, greatly affects your behavior. Just as the observer changes the system she observes. So I don’t know if the Sante Fe Institute is going to be able to create the new institution. I would rather suspect that in its present form it won't, simply because it doesn't have enough concern for completeness along with its concern for complexity. It lacks a sense of the sacred, the mystical, the Orphic. So it very easily can get drawn back into the basin of attraction of the Archimedean.
How can one have a place that is both Orphic and Archimedean? Because you can have engineers who are mystics, who see patterns, and connect the part to whole— I don't want to caricature the creativity of engineers. And if you have only the Pythagorean Academy, you have what Jonathan Swift characterized, the academy of Legato, where they were—what was it?—capturing sunlight in cucumbers. It's thirty-five years since I read Swift's spoof of the Royal Academy. But you can get something that's so esoteric and disembodied that it's not healthy. So you want something that's Christicly embodied. And that's what we were trying to do in all the other projects of Lindisfarne, in terms of appropriate technology, sustainable agriculture, solar architecture, new forms of polity—the whole "metaindustrial village" idea. We were always trying to be immanental and not just transcendental. But that’s very hard because there is no political constituency that wants to support it. Because, as Wes Jackson says, everything he does proves that agribusiness is going in a wrong, and indeed an evil, direction—trying to patent genes, create artificial animals, and have a new second nature owned by multinational corporations. Everything Lindisfarne and The Land Institute do, goes in the other direction—of culturing nature with highly individuated creatures.
AZ: You could say Lindisfarne is a being of light filled with myth and metaphor, but it's always in danger of snipping its umbilical cord to the Earth and finding a refined place for itself in a sanctuary on top of a mountain in Colorado. And the danger with a place like the Santa Fe Institute is that it will become routinized in he conventional sense by the money of Citicorp Bank and the glamour of becoming successful.
WIT: For a while they had a campus that looked like any old insurance office—a drive-in parking-lot office.. I think they're trying to get a new set-up now and have a more appropriate campus.
AZ: So let's say that it will be threatened by encapsulation in the Earth, by a now wonderfully rich complex architecture of programs, computer models, and intellectual life, but it will sever itself from that poetic and intellectual chamber music of some place like Lindisfarne. How does one marry a being of light with a being of Earth? How does one marry the heavens and the Earth?
WIT: Well, Arthur, I think that's your job. Your "Mission Impossible, should you accept it." It's what you are invoking when you talk about "the Academy." This is like my memo to you last winter. What John Todd and I didn’t do with our institutions of New Alchemy and Lindisfarne was we didn’t sacralize the production of wealth. We were dependent upon foundation patronage. There has to be a new and sacred form of producing wealth--not just visions and poetry, but there has to be a way of producing energy and wealth, and maybe Brian Arthur's "increasing returns" is a start. Can you create, if not the colossal fortunes of the old industrial variety—the Carnegies and Mellons and Rockefellers, or now Bill Gates—can your Academy create sufficient wealth to sustain the institution? Now in the old days, in the medieval "Plan of St. Gall," there was a vision of a wedding of an economy and a soul. The monastery was basically a social development, public-service corporation. It was not separated off; it served society in general and developed new forms of improved agriculture and nutrition. It was applied sacred knowledge, everything down to nutrition and the good porter that gave you a heavy grain beverage, one that made you cheerful, warm in the winter, but also gave you the B vitamins you needed.
AZ: It's a marriage that goes all the way down to the economic.
WIT: Somehow or other, we have to sacralize economics. We sixties types fled from economics into our communes. The eighties types raced toward economics in their BMWs with their MBAs. Both are wrong, so you nineties types have to come up with the Alchemical Marriage of angels and economies. Ecology is a start. Ecology is our governing science—more than econometrics. I see it as a shift from the nineteenth century where economics was the governing science of society. I am creating a dialogue between Wes Jackson and Brian Arthur to imagine this new governing science for the twenty-first century—one that incorporates Wes’ sustainable ecologies and Brian's "increasing returns" economies. I don’t know what I am talking about yet; I am basically moving toward an unknown horizon, impelled by intuition. What has to be brought forth, to use Varela's language, ~ a form of production of—we don't want to use the term "wealth" but maybe "commonwealth" --an economy that sustains sacred institutions and the societies around them within the context of the ecology that embodied them.
"The Plan of St. Gall" serves as one metaphor for me. Something that seems to vibrate in resonance with all these intuitive hunches.
But there is also a dark side, a shadow formation that is pushing us in a historical direction. It seems to me that what is happening all around the world is a re-medievalization— the Reconstruction of bourgeois middle-class society. The breakup of modernizing Yugoslavia and the rise of the medieval kingdom of Serbia with its "state of possession" to push the Turk out of Europe is one example. Right when modernizers were talking about "Europe 1992," and right when Turkey was asking to be admitted as a member of the EC—the middle ages return and we find ourselves back fighting along the fault-lines of religious wars: Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox. Here in America, we see this remedievalization in forms like the disintegration of public schools, the disintegration of public civility, drive-by shootings, murderous children—nine-year-olds as hit men. I mean, the world of our cities is not civil, it's just horrific. But when you look back at history, there were times—most of the times—when there were places in the world where you couldn't travel. There was chaos in most areas; there were brigands and robbers on the roads, and the places of civility were very few and restricted. The basic higher civilization was contained within walled cities and fortresses. So the rich right now are retreating to neomedieval fortresses. Corporations are leaving New York and settling into suburban settlements in Dallas where they are "secured" through private police systems. The new global corporations of GATT and NAFTA are reconstructing global wealth to pauperize trade unions and push the lower-middle class back down to the level of postindustrial serfs. The impact of it all, whether conscious or otherwise, is the disintegration of the middle class. You have massive immigration everywhere in order to roll back the postwar advances that created the middle class societies of Sweden, Great Britain, Canada, and the U.S. Muslims in Bradford, Turks in Berlin, Arabs in Marseille, and Mexicans in L.A. have the same effect: they ignite the displaced white indigenous working class and give you explosions of rage and racism, especially at soccer matches. So you get skinheads and Le Pen, and while the upper-middle-class managers snub Le Pen and bemoan the ugly skinheads, they themselves move out of the zones of cultural entropy into fortress communities. This pauperization of the North American-Western European working class enables North American executives to consolidate their marketplace by creating their own internal "Third World." This insures that they can always have their own continental "economy of scale" to survive and compete with China and Indonesia. It is not ecologically to our advantage to have a cultural form of entropy in which Mexico City and L.A. become indistinguishable. but it is to the advantage of multinational corporations that wish to have cheap labor and to break down Canada with Mexico. This allows developers to get Canadian water to develop Silicon Valley defense industry settlements in the Rocky cordillera from Austin through Santa Fe to Colorado Springs through Wyoming, Montana, and on to Calgary. It is basically a hockey face-off over who is going to rule the twenty-first century: China or North America. And when I say North America, I don't mean the U.S.A., I mean a NAFTA formation that has corporatized Mexico and Restructured Canada and pauperized the formerly middle class United States. You use cheap Mexican labor to break down the middle-class civility of the Canadian economy—with its national health plan—you energize redneck Social Credit British Columbia—which hates elitist Old Boy Ontario—and pit it against Francophone Quebec, and then sit back and hope to pick up the pieces. It's basically the "hostile takeover" strategy of the eighties now applied to nation-states instead of corporations. Buy it out, break it up, and sell off the pieces, which are worth more than the whole: Canadian water is worth more than that old fictional Canadian nineteenth century McDonald-Laurier railroad nation-state. So as Canada disintegrates, a new North America is able to consolidate a transcontinental economy that can compete with Japan-Korea-China and the whole Pacific Rim, or with a rising Super-Europe, and have all the water and energy it needs. The great need of the future is not oil, it's water, and Canada is the biggest reservoir of water anywhere around.
Anyway, all of this has the effect of ending the age I grew up in—when government extended credit to the lower middle class and gave them G.l. loans, which gave them money for houses, which gave us the suburbs, cars and credit cards and shopping malls and drive-in universities like U.C. Irvine. In the expanding middle class era, you had good public schools and public universities like Berkeley that became as good as Harvard and Princeton. All of that era was the triumph of the middle-class American dream and all of that is disappearing even as we speak. And at a rate of speed that's staggering, because it's happening in my lifetime. It should take longer than that, but in a logarithmic progression, history has accelerated, as Henry Adams prophesied when America took off globally in the first place. What it all means for us intellectuals is that we become either like Franciscans begging or Benedictines building. In the new Academy, or the new distributed lattices of the new monasticism, we have to create the extracellular matrix that brings cells together in a new step in evolution. That's the way evolution worked, the little cell exuded material that helped membranes bond and made multicellularity possible. This is all part of Tim Kennedy's work, and why I am attracted to it, for all its metaphoric possibilities. ~ . . .:
So if we are back into the Middle Ages again, then the role of the monastery is an isomorph of what we need to do in the Academy for the future. The Plan of St. Gall produced: new agriculture for post-tribal society. When St. Columbanus came to France, the Franks were primitive farmers, so the first thing he did was to raise their level of farming. The medieval monastery was a public resource for the community. Now people are terrified and public schools and lower-middle class neighborhoods are disintegrating, so that if the Academy can meet this need—as Waldorf schools and "the threefold social order" have—then new wealth-producing commonwealths can counter the GATT-NAFTA process of pauperization and remedievalization.
Sometimes when I look back at Findhorn and Lindisfarne and Baker-Roshi's Green Gulch and Tassajara Zen communities, I feel that what we were all unconsciously designing was the reservations for the poor of the twenty-first century. We thought we were creating "alternative institutions" for drop-outs from Harvard and Vassar, and indeed some people from those schools did come. But what these communes were really creating is, if we're lucky, the reservations for the poor of the twenty-first century, and if we're unlucky and the enantiodromias of history allow the government to coopt us, then they'll be the concentration camps for the poor. Newt Gingrich wants religion to step in to do what late capitalism doesn't have the time to mess around with—the poor. So he wants orphanages, Boys Town, and the Dickensian world of Victorian global wealth and national poverty back in full swing. There are millions of people who are not needed for this reconsolidating GATT-NAFTA economy. They're not needed as slaves, as they were in ancient society. They're not needed as serfs, as they were in classical society. And they're not needed as an industrial proletariat, as they were in industrial society. So communities of being—as opposed to knowing and doing—are going to become really important. And the irony is, if you look back at the model of my original Lindisfarne community in Fishcove with its fourfold order of working with heart, mind, body, and soul, that such a model would actually work well as a good life on the reservation. There was meditation, organic gardening, communal schools for the kids, and communal labor. I would clean the toilets and sweep the classroom before I lectured in it. The children worked for two hours a day cleaning up the place or working in the garden with the adults; the school was part of the community, the children didn't go to public school; there was group meditation and no high priests or gurus. And all of that kind of communal vision gave everyone a sense of identity and participation and belonging—all of the things that are lacking in the modern MTV "gangsta rap" world. With people fleeing the terrors of life in the cities, there's going to be even more of a need for places like Lindisfarne and Findhorn. But the alternative communities of the seventies, the original Lindisfarne at Fishcove. failed because they had no real economy. They couldn't survive by charging people admission fees to belong. So the new communities have to find a cash-producing, energy-producing, wealth-producing form that sacrilizes an economy. The old ones of the Shakers or the Amish or the Menonites were always wed to agriculture, but I don't think that's still an option for the twenty-first century.
AZ: In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, Peter Drucker talks about the shift from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy and then to a knowledge-based economy. but basically that's also shrinking. The number of people who are needed for that was never huge, but now it's much less than it ever was and will likely be ten percent of the working population. Drucker maintains that, basically, we'll become a knowledge-based society and communities will have to recognize that. People will have to recognize that they are going to be constantly re-educating themselves. The industrial wealth you produce may not be made by manufacturing—by, for example, manufacturing new automobiles, however, you may act as a consultant to those who manage automobile factories. because you have a kind of knowledge and ability to move that they don't. ...
WIT: The difficulty is intellectual property. The nature of the Internet and the Worldwide Web—these cyberspaces of the information superhighway—makes it really hard to protect private property or intellectual property in this neomedieval culture. Re-medievalization means the meltdown of private property and the return of commons and or cyberspace thieves or hacker-Robin Hoods. For example, take a look at John Todd's invention of the Bioshelter. Basically, he lost a lot of his property rights for "living machines" because in the nature of late capitalism, your own corporation takes your ideas away from you.
AZ: There are two possibilities. One is, you can try to be smart and patent things. But there is always more money on the other side. They can rage at you, they can defend against your licensing until you are bankrupt. One of the things that Drucker mentions is that, for example, with a complex computer program or problem, what you actually have is a capacity somebody else doesn't have: either the capacity to solve an equation or to see an issue, or you have a kind of knowledge or skill which people come to recognize is going to translate into profit for them. Now there's no way short of hiring you into their company...
WIT: I certainly know that whatever strategy I have taken, it has been immediately captured and cloned in degenerate forms. I set up Lindisfarne at Fishcove, and it failed for lack of money, but corporate training ashrams thrive. I set up Lindisfarne-in-Manhattan, and it failed for lack of money, but the place was taken over as a sacrilegious punk discotechque and it thrives as Limelight. Limelight in the eighties and nineties is like a demonic parody of Lindisfarne in-Manhattan of the seventies. Then, at Maurice Strong's invitation, I started the meta-industrial village project for Crestone, Colorado in 1979, with its miniaturization of the esoteric schools of the great universal religions. But Crestone now is running the risk of becoming a New Age suburb to Santa Fe and a theme park Disneyland of the old world religions, of the srpiritualization of the past. A spiritual EPCOT. I feel that my career has been analogous to the Henry' J car. When I was a kid, Henry J. Kaiser tried to market a small car during the era of the fin-tailed giant gas-guzzlers. Then—Bam!—in came Volkswagen and gobbled up the global market, and the Henry J did not survive to be even part of the market it had intuited. Another version of this is the case of DeHaviland jets and Boeing. The danger is that if these knowledge-based groups like yours or mine or John Todd's can intuit an innovation they most often can't institutionalize it. It's like Westinghouse buying up Tesla's inventions all over again. An MTV-Time-Warner corporation is going to come in and just turn the intuitive Luciferian transcendent intuition into an Ahrimanic consolidation. one that becomes a horrible parody of the original.
AZ: This is something Will Brinton talks about regarding his little Woods End Laboratories. He's had offers to be bought out by everybody who's in the waste disposal field, these huge firms such as Waste Management Inc. They recognize that if they could take the knowledge in that place —they don't have to take any of the people, they just take the programs, the little patented things that they have codified or proprietary things that they've kept tight—they could grow the thing out exponentially. The alternative is for Will to get a million dollars to invest in his own company. But then the venture capitalists want a sure-fire thing. They want all the strings attached, and they want all the money for themselves. So either you give it away and you take a little bit and get your forty-acre farm and go out to pasture, or the venture capitalists take it all away. For the last five years it's been very interesting to see him meet with these big guys and turn down offer after offer. He has knowledge that nobody else has. -And he keeps getting new knowledge that nobody else has. So even if they pirate it in some way, like John Todd he keeps inventing the next thing, and they will recognize that they'd still like to have him. Maybe this is going to be a dilemma that, within the current economic structure, is just not going to work out.
WIT: But say you were an inventor, or as a physicist you made some quantum-optic thingamabob. You invent the modern equivalent of the light bulb or something, and from that you fund yourself, a la Fetzer, and keep the Academy going. Or maybe the invention is also produced by you, so you have people working within a corporation that is also owned by its members—like United Airlines. Everybody who is a part owns a part. Amana tried something like this in the beginning when it was a utopian community. Now they are a normal corporation that produces refrigerators and air conditioners, so they became routinized too. But in the next generation, there's got to be something beyond Lindisfarne that really works.
AZ: There are a couple of banks connected with anthroposophical things starting up. There's a credit union that is making pretty good strides. Suppose you take an organization in which members share a common bond or aspiration, a utopian community, one working towards a new kind of society or new kind of knowledge, and you say "I'm earning a living in a conventional sort of way. How do I sacralize the money I am earning, or at least some fraction of it?" In other words, you would try to create new capital, new wealth, through your enterprise. Or you could also imagine recycling old wealth. You could say, "We're going to make loans and investments and all varieties of financial vehicles, basically pirating the money from conventional society." Everybody has credit cards, cash cards, accounts. And since anything can happen anywhere, with the ATM machine, anywhere in the world you can be part of that same credit union. What do you think? This has actually been proposed and they've done their first presentations.
WIT: It might work. A credit union kind of thing in a complex ecology, where there's a press and maybe CD Rom publications and people linked in various ways, could be the way to go. I just get befuddled at the omnipresence of the Ahrimanic. This morning I was reading a New York Times article on the Worldwide Web—the web that Ralph Abraham constantly pitches at our Lindisfarne meetings. Why is it that all these wonderful technologies—that must be created by very brilliant, gifted people—are always used for banal communications? Today's New York Times talks about this wonderful global web created by the Internet that gives you a CD Rom tour of Graceland, and how you can access new movies like The Flintstones! There is this incredible dumbification that comes along with Artificial Intelligence. There's this glorious technology and what do you get—Elvis Presley and a CD-Rom tour of Graceland!
AZ: Somehow it pitches it to the market. Everybody wants numbers of users.
WIT: But the new electronic market is supposed to be "narrow casting" not "broadcasting.'' You are supposed to be able to access Flaubert or Shakespeare and not just Elvis Presley. This kind of Dumbification is another form of pauperization—mental pauperization. It gets rid of bright, educated citizens and replaces them with technopeasants. This kind of American national stupidity also serves the GATT-NAFTA world in which politics is no longer an expression of ideas—from Locke to Jefferson—but a variation of the NFL. A presidential election is just another Super Bowl. There are antagonists, but both sides are the same—Avis and Hertz, Coke and Pepsi, Miami Dolphins and Dallas Cowboys, Republican and Democrat. The politician is no longer a thinker or a leader, he is a celebrity. And all celebrities are the same—O. J. Simpson, Newt Gingrich, Oprah, Michael Jackson, Bill Clinton, or the Pope.
AZ: Part of this electronic culture is that it creates such a morass of information that you can't find the narrow band. It may actually be out there but even in the World Wide Web, you and I will die before we find Flaubert. It's part of the deception.
WIT: Here I guess I am a bit paranoid and think that everything that's plugged in gets plugged into and controlled by Ahriman. These "Plan of St. Gall" strategies would have to have a way of being—if not self-sufficient, because that Night be a trap—at least self-sustaining in some sort of way in terms of education and schools and things of that sort.
AZ: It's very interesting, looking at the anthroposophical world. If the anthroposophical movement had only entailed Rudolf Steiner's knowledge, if it had been an initiatic tradition, it would have died. You'd have had the Gesamtausgabe being produced by the Nachlass like a kind of artifact, like Jung or Freud, produced as a scholarly testament. As long as the copyrights are still there and you're still selling books, you can do the next volume. When the copyright runs out, eventually you also disappear. But the thing that seems to have given Steiner's work some life is the fact that there are these Waldorf schools and you can be employed (in the service of his ideas).
WIT: Also, there is the Weleda factory, and things of that sort.
AZ: Right, you can be an employee. You are being paid to think and to live an esoteric life. When you look at the children you teach, you are supposed to think about their subtle bodies, their past lives, your karmic relationship to this child, your karmic relationship to your colleagues at the children’s parents. You get paid to do this....
WIT: But do they really get paid? According to Steiner's dictum, don't they only get paid "according to their needs," so all the teachers in effect get underpaid?
AZ: Well, everybody would love to get properly paid, but that's more a question of how you fund these things. In Europe, you're paid just as well as any other teacher, but in America, all private schools pay less than public schools pay. But if you want to live a life of the spirit you don't only have to do it one night a week where you come together in a cabal. Or if you want to farm you have an option. You can farm in a conventional way or you can farm in a way that should produce an equivalent wealth by farming biodynamically. They've done studies in Australia—I don't know if you've seen the article in Science magazine. Will Brinton sent it to me and it's really quite interesting. A group of university scientists compared organic, biodynamic and conventionally grown vegetable farms according to all standard categories of farm analysis—economic, soil friability, and so forth. The studies systematically indicated as you would hope they would if you are interested in sustainable agriculture—significant, not miraculous, but significant and consistent benefits, on all scales, to organic farming methods, and even more to biodynamic techniques. So even if you just do the economics of long-term sustainability on a scientific basis, there's good reason to believe you could still make a living by farming by the stars. , kind of wild.
Now you could say, "well, we're going to employ everybody, and everyone will do better." We could have a Die economy where the people who are participating in it thinking a different set of thoughts. And the world runs better, the goods taste better. You're keeping the land better. We tend to think spiritually minded folks are in a cloud-cuckoo land and are totally impractical. We think that you couldn’t possibly live off these things. But in point of fact you can, or at least a few people can. The question is, why more folks?
WIT: And some more people are working on health. Deepok Chopra had written a million-copy best-seller on lent Ayurvedic medicine and holistic health.
AZ: Not only physicians, but all kinds of alternative health practitioners. People will go to an acupuncturist thinking, there’s this subtle energy, and nobody knows where it is, I'm willing to tap into it, and I'm willing to pay fifty bucks for the procedure." You have this whole shadow economy.
WIT: Some artists are still living off art.
AZ: An amazing economic study would be to survey what fraction of the economy is living off of spirit, so to speak—off of people’s conviction that a certain kind of food, a certain kind of lifestyle, a certain kind of medicine, a certain kind of education.
WIT: The commercial New Age economy must be huge--movies, books, workshops, icons, and crystals.
AZ: Exactly. There must be millions circulating...
WIT: But where is it all coming from? It's like the recent explosion of gambling—all these reservations are opening gambling casinos. Where do people in a troubled economy get the money to throw away in gambling? So it all comes back to the fact that at some place in the economy, there has to be some bacteria producing the oxygen for the others to breathe.
AZ: This is the great inversion going on now. Let's imagine you and I were to write a book about the shadow—no, not the shadow, the light economy. And that it was compellingly written to show that there was a market out there that was still only just barely tapped. What do you think would happen?
WIT: It would get tapped.
AZ: I don't know if we would be invited. We'd give a couple of talks and they'd take over.
WIT: But they'd name it after us! Milenko Matanovic, in his book Square Tomatoes and Meandering Rivers, noticed that all subdivision tracts are named after the ecosystems they have destroyed. You know, "Apple Orchard Crest" or "Prairie Knolls" or "Eagle's Crest Estates.' It's the same thing with TV. The central fact of television is that the content of the medium is filled up with the culture it has destroyed. TV destroys family conversation, so Oprah is filled with relationship conversations. Watching TV destroys exercise and walking, so TV is filled with spectator sports. TV destroys political debate—the old Lincoln Douglas debates would go on for hours!—so TV is filled with political celebrities who actually destroy real political ideas and philosophies. We slay with technology and then save the victim with art. So the movie Pagemaster celebrates books with the very electronic media that killed reading. But it still befuddles me how some people can make tons of money with inferior stuff that very little quality in it--like the craze for The Celestine Prophecy--an absolutely incompetent novel if there ever was one. Whether they’re non-writers or "management consultants'' who have never run a real business, or politicians who have not an idea in their head but only sound bites and ideological slogans, what the successful all seem to have in common is that they understand that this new information economy is not based on ideas but on illusions. And I guess that explains the new American economy of the state of entertainment. Since illusions are a kind of astral plane formation, they attract those noetic parasites that used to be called demons. These critters rev up the astral energy that gives those humans in their possession a real addictive high. Culture becomes just one big cult. So, since I have argued in my books that "evil is the annunciation of the next level of order," I guess all this means that we have to come up with an isomorphic angelic economy.
Well, as I said before, Arthur, this is "your Mission Impossible," to create a new cultural strategy to counter all this. I did Lindisfarne a generation ago, but now I'm a grandfather in my rocker, mumbling through my dentures, "in my day we did it better." And that's a turn-off for everybody. So it’s my time to shut up and watch what you and your "Academy" will come up with for the next generation.