The Music of the New (Fuller) Life

[A hypertext-enhanced post based on a paper I wrote a short while back]

Buckminster Fuller was known especially for his viewpoint of the human condition, rooted in the sustainable and ecological, and certainly alternative to the more linear mode of thought of his life and times. In the 1966 article “The Music of the New Life: Thoughts on Creativity, Sensorial Reality, and Comprehensiveness,” published in the journal of The National Association for Music Education (NAME), we get a sense of the key components of Fuller’s perspective and its relationship, although not explicit in the article, to the ideas of Gregory Bateson and Alfred Korzybski. The article presents an overt challenge to the common notions of creativity and perception and offers his view that comprehensiveness in the exploration of our environment ought be the goal of education via an intuitive and autonomous approach.

Creativity vs. Differentiation and The Generalized Principle

Fuller begins his piece by immediately challenging the idea that human beings possess the ability to create, noting that what is generally spoken of as creativity is, in actuality, discovery. He suggests that humans have the unique capacity among the biological species of the world to identify and conceptualize abstract principles of the universe, which he frames as understanding via differentiation. Of course, Bateson notes that in the analysis of cybernetic systems and organization the term “information” can be defined as “any difference which makes a difference in some later event.” Fuller shares this perspective and articulates the concept of human understanding in terms of information as the difference that makes a difference, an expression that Bateson became famous for using. In his rejection of the term “creativity”, Fuller states, “I go along with the 5,000-year-old philosophy of the Bhagavad-Gita which says, “Action is the product of the qualities inherent in nature. It is only the ignorant man who, misled by personal egotism, says: ‘I am the doer.’ ”

Fuller enters dangerous territory when he asserts that humans, and in fact the universe itself, are machines. From a physical standpoint, the interplay of the universe as a machine allows Fuller the opportunity to build his perspective of the essence of humanity in abstraction and differentiation via a mathematical device called the “generalized principle.” For him, the ability of humans to differentiate, to conceptualize in abstraction, is a unique gift, and the root of our metaphysical nature. This generalization is a process by which humans conceive of objects and events as general examples of larger categories, develop concepts about the coexistent properties of these objects and events, and eventually simplify the explanation of these properties in single words. In all, Fuller proposes five levels of generalization in this pattern and suggests that the ability to engage in this system of abstraction constitutes humans’ unique function in the universe. He cleverly states, “Man is the great antientropy of the universe,” in direct contradiction to laws of thermodynamics and holds up Einstein’s realization of the theory of relativity as an example of this idea.

This, too, is reminiscent of Bateson, who proposed that accepting the assumption of repeatable context in stimulus/response scenarios, we must then subject the idea of context to logical typing where the stimulus is an elementary signal, the context of the stimulus is a metamessage which classifies the elementary signal, the context of the context of the stimulus is a meta-metamessage which classifies the metamessage, and on down the line. He argues that organisms classify the various contexts by recognizing signals, context markers that in turn would bring about a different response.This cybernetic perspective links Fuller and Bateson and illustrates the shared notion of conscious differentiation in both understanding and learning as the great gift of “mind,” which defines our humanity.

Linking these ideas to the human capacity to differentiate musical tones, manifesting in the introduction of corresponding symbol systems and instruments, Fuller is able to clarify and locate his audience, the members of NAME.  It is his premise that musicians are much more in touch with the nature of their theory than scientists, who routinely disregard what they know about the nature of the universe when communicating about the world. It is in this critique that we find the most salient observations made in the piece and also the most puzzling.     

Sensorial Reality

Fuller’s critique of scientists is rooted in two key places. The first is the notion that scientists routinely ignore science in communication. He recounts a wonderful confrontation he had in 1950 as a speaker at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Faculty Club, in which he directly challenged the scientists with their own ignorance. Fuller presents the group with an easily visualized story of a scientist with his family observing the sun at dusk. He imagines the scientist remarking at the beauty of the sunset, knowing full well that the sun does not in fact set in any way. He goes on to say:

You know that the sun is not setting. You know that the earth is revolving to obscure the sun, but you see the sun set. Because it is taking you more than 500 years to get mentally-reflexively-in gear with your own theory, it must be because you don’t know how and probably haven’t even tried; therefore I think that you are fundamentally ignorant, particularly because of experiments I have made with children.

Undoubtedly, this perspective comes from Fuller’s association with the general semantics community and Alfred Korzybski. Fuller argues that the gift of abstraction must remain a conscious process, or we will certainly transform all that we have learned about the universe in our experimentation into something symbolic and almost wholly detached from science. He names Korzybski in the discussion of this process where we might come to understand a rose reflexively as something red, white, or pink used in rituals of courtship, rather than for its complex biological functions and its “interecological functionings aboard our planet.” This is Fuller’s attempt to reposition his audience in relation to what it knows, or believes it knows. The experiments he cites, done with children, ushers in his main purpose in presenting these ideas in the article. His main purpose is to argue for a different model of education, a comprehensive model.

Comprehensiveness and Education

Fuller argues that much of our resources are wasted on the education of the adolescent or adult, when most learning is done during childhood development. He writes at length about the symbolic traps into which we learn to fall as adults, which are largely absent in children. The idea of intuition in learning is key to Fuller’s ideas about differentiation and the science of generalization, and it is his belief that children ought not be forced into specialized knowledge before this brilliant attribute is dulled. In fact, he discusses at length the ideas of Alfred North Whitehead and the critique of fragmentation of subjects in educational institutions. For Fuller, it is the intuitive aspect of learning and its direct relation to autonomy that make this critique all the more poignant in contrast. Where the scientist has learned this fragmentation of knowledge and has seen it reinforced in the physical environment of the classroom and the laboratory, the artist is not similarly burdened for the most part. (This is the position of my first post at this blog, titled “Amateurs & Professionals.”)

The intriguing aspect of Fuller’s antidote to this fragmentation is the idea that electronic media can drive autonomous learning in areas where our institutions fail. Television can transform the power of the large personality into a force of inspiration for a mass audience seeking learning in a new medium. His faith in electronic media are not entirely misplaced, as the McLuhanite circles of media theory certainly recognize the tendency of electricity to promote holism and Gestalt in communication. It is, rather, his observation that his own grandchildren sitting transfixed before the television represent the potential for a new model of learning, absorbed in the medium like a nursing baby in its mother’s arms, that seems overly idealistic. Certainly, Fuller was aware of the institutional and cultural constraints to that dream, and furthermore the notion of television as a factor in civil disengagement and the sedentary lifestyle would stand as the negative counterbalance to whatever good may come of the medium as a tool for education. Neil Postman’s notions of the Faustian bargain we make with our technology have made this case very clearly. Still, in 1966, with new potentials being explored, Fuller gives us an important redefinition of our humanity in the universe and offers a vision for the future that is rooted in science, but grounded by art.

About mikeplugh

Media Ecology General Semantics Baseball Japan Fordham University
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