The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller
Utopia or Oblivion
Bucky: A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller
The servile specialist, eloquently ignorant of any department of thought but his own, and therefore fundamentally ignorant of essential relationships in his own field, was undoubtedly a product of the Brown Decades: but it is our own fault, not that of the earlier period, that he has become a chronic malady of our intellectual life, instead of a passing maladjustment.
Lewis Mumford wrote that forty-two years ago, and we have little to show for the years since except the knowledge that the chronic malady has been nurtured into a cancer. Knowledge becomes special knowledge, expertise, as though that were the only kind there is, or the only kind that could be trusted.
Mumford and Buckminster Fuller are extraordinarily active men now in their late seventies. Mumford has just published Interpretations and Forecasts: 1922-1972, “the one-volume Mumford: the essential thought,” except it isn’t, because his writing on cities is being reserved for a second volume. Something with Fuller’s name on it is appearing all the time. At hand are Earth, Inc., a small collection of short things done over the last twenty-five years; The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller, which is mostly a collection of drawings and photographs; Utopia or Oblivion, a reissue of a 1969 collection of some of Fuller’s finest performances; perhaps most welcome of all is the best book on Fuller yet to appear, Bucky, by Hugh Kenner.
Both Mumford and Fuller are well known, but because neither is a specialist, they may have cause for wondering how much their prolonged and learned efforts have ever really been accepted. We have no name for such people. Specialists employ ugly terms, ranging from the condescending “generalist” to the curled lip “amateur” to, at least in Fuller’s case, “crank” and “crackpot.” Fuller sometimes calls himself a “comprehensivist,” which won’t do, and not only because it isn’t accurate. Mumford would probably just call himself a writer, but when someone calls himself that, he is often assumed to be out of a job, and being out of a job tends to mean being out of a university job, a specialist’s job.
The specialist, looking at Mumford or Fuller, is free to ask: What do they know? What definitive work did they do? The Library of Congress has trouble classifying their work, book-stores don’t know in what section they belong. We can invite Mumford and Fuller to give keynote speeches, we can give them impressive sounding awards, but what we really want is the person who wrote the best biography of Zachary Taylor, the best study of the effects of northern urbanization on first-generation immigrant blacks, the best account of the influence of Milton on Wordsworth. In the sciences we don’t even want books at all, just articles that report the findings.
The first thing to say about Interpretations and Forecasts is that Mumford’s early work is a pleasure to read, or reread. Here is a sample:
In the bareness of the Protestant cathedral of Geneva one has the beginnings of the hard barracks architecture which formed the stone tenements of seventeenth-century Edinburgh, set a pattern for the austere meeting-houses of New England, and finally deteriorated into the miserable shanties that line Main Street. The meagerness of the Protestant ritual began that general starvation of the spirit which finally breaks out, after long repression, in the absurd jamborees of Odd Fellows, Elks, Woodmen, and kindred fraternities. In short, all that was once made manifest in a Chartres, a Strasbourg, or a Durham minster, and in the mass, the pageant, the art gallery, the theater—all this the Protestant bleached out into the bare abstraction of the printed word. Did he suffer any hardship in moving to the New World? None at all. All that he wanted of the Old World he carried within the covers of a book. Fortunately for the original Protestants, that book was a whole literature; in this, at least, it differed from the later Protestant canons, perpetrated by Joseph Smith or Mary Baker Eddy. Unfortunately, however, the practices of a civilized society cannot be put between two black covers. So, in some respects, Protestant society ceased to be civilized.
Mumford is blessed precisely because he has no subject, only a train of thought he is following; on another occasion he might remind us of the virtues of Mary Baker Eddy or the shortcomings of medieval Christianity. He is free because he is appealing not to our ignorance but to our knowledge, to rearrange what we already know—Main Street, Odd Fellow jamborees, Chartres—into a new configuration:
Once the European, indeed, had abandoned the dream of medieval theology, he could not live very long on the memory of a classic culture: that, too, lost its meaning; that, too, failed to make connections with his new experiences in time and space. Leaving both behind him, he turned to what seemed to him a hard and patent reality: the external world.
It seems almost effortless as Mumford does it. We were taught that the Renaissance had to do with humanism and that humanism had to do with the “rediscovery” of ancient literature, but we were never convincingly told why that should make such a difference. The reason, Mumford assures us, is that it didn’t, and, furthermore, what we can see as important, like the voyages to the New World, or Galileo, was indeed what is important. No need to ask whether Mumford has his facts exactly right, or all the facts he should have; no need, thus, to argue with him, to suggest that the Protestant achievements of Spenser, Rembrandt, and Milton were as impressive as anything in medieval culture. Fact-mongering, scholastic argumentation are irrelevant, because Mumford is not driven by a need to be original or definitive; he appeals, instead, to our sense of the humanly reasonable and possible.
It is what I, however fumblingly, went to college to hear, and heard all, too little, but enough to convince me of the enduring importance of this way of thinking and writing about the past. Later, of course, would come the stern admonitions. “Historians,” even “history majors,” and especially “graduate students” had to be suspicious of such ease, freedom, and generality, such unscientific and unverifiable assertions. I don’t think I ever really believed such admonitions, work though I did to find out who wrote the standard biography of Charles II. But what I did do was to turn to writers like Mumford less often than I once had done. I remember a splendid review of his of the last four volumes of Toynbee’s Study, which is regrettably missing from this collection, but Mumford’s new books in those years were called In the Name of Sanity and The Transformations of Man, and so we drifted apart, and I think now we were both right and both wrong.
My experience did allow me a great sense of freshness in rereading what Mumford has chosen from The Golden Day, The Brown Decades, Herman Melville, and the somewhat later The Condition of Man. Confident of the greatness of human variousness, Mumford approaches each figure without method or bias: Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Jesus, Augustine, Aquinas—the portraits are usually small, but lithe, alive, telling. Of course some figures remain obdurately beyond Mumford’s temperament, but, one notes, because they are narrow and powerful, like the apostle Paul, Rousseau, and Hume, and Mumford responds best to those who are, like himself, flexible and capacious. But these flaws are just that, the necessary shortcomings of one man just because he is only one man.
To say all this is to imply misgivings about some of Mumford’s later work. It is not that his interests have changed, but urgency and gloom have infected him. Look at Mumford, in 1948, linking the over-use of the printing press with the evils of specialization; look at how a fine paragraph is, to my mind, marred in its final sentence:
…the mere multiplication of our mechanical facilities has so swollen the output of printed matter, that if any human being attempted to keep up with it in the most cursory way he would have no time left for any other activity…. Each specialist, by agreement, pays attention to the narrow column of water that works his particular turbine, and automatically rejects contributions that flow in any other channels: even as he turns aside, perhaps more decisively, from the broad silt-laden river of human experience from which all these activities derive…. Either to explore the past or keep up with the present becomes increasingly impossible: so that our capacity for assimilation may be said to vary inversely with our capacity for production; and eventually this will have an unfortunate effect upon our creativity, indeed on our very rationality. When our frustrations finally become acute, we may be tempted, like Hitler’s followers, to seek in mere charlatanism and quackery some short cut to order.
What, in the next-to-last sentence, is an “unfortunate effect” is expanded, in a frustrated and unthinking way, into the followers of Hitler and the rest. Mumford has gained from the war a bludgeon; faced with an enemy, and in need of a weapon, invoke the Nazi experience.
Near the end of the same essay, the sourness becomes more acute:
About any and every machine, above all about the technical process itself, the critical question is: How much does this instrument further life? If it does not promote human welfare, in the fullest sense, an atomic pile is as disreputable as a pinball game or a juke box.
Pinballs and juke boxes—disreputable? The cheap horror show of the Fifties is upon us, the endless baiting of popular culture for its vulgarity, the equally endless denunciations about the standardization of life and the dehumanization of men in cities. Mumford plunges in, as if unaware that Philip Wylie, or Vance Packard, or a reasonably literate and would-be cynical sophomore, sounds just that way:
If the goal of human history is a uniform type of man, reproducing at a uniform rate, in a uniform environment, kept at a constant temperature, pressure, and humidity, like a uniformly lifeless existence, with his uniform physical needs satisfied by uniform goods, all inner waywardness brought into conformity by hypnotics and sedatives, or by urgent extirpation, a creature under constant mechanical pressure from incubator to incinerator, most of the problems of human development would disappear. Only one problem would remain: Why should anyone, even a computer, bother to keep this kind of creature alive?
Much of Mumford’s writing of the Fifties and Sixties is like this. One need do no more than to compare this passage with the first passage from Mumford quoted above, which is also about the uncivilizing of civilization.
The fear of the religion of the machine and the corresponding fear of the religion of centralized power take over, and, as fear will, it strikes Mumford dumb: “By a total inversion of human values, the favored leaders and mentors of our age prefer disease to health, destruction to creativity, pornography to potent sexual experience, debasement to development”; “In this shift to a world directed solely by intelligence for the exploitation of power, all of post-historic man’s efforts tend toward uniformity”; “By our overvaluation of physical power and scientific truth, aloof from other human needs, we have paid the same price Faust had to pay when he made his compact with Mephistopheles: we have lost our souls.” On and on it goes, essay after essay bloated and yet empty, the voice urgent, but losing its authenticity in clichés.