July 25, 2009

Bucky Balls

"If man is to continue as a successful pattern-complex function in universal evolution, it will be because the next decades will have witnessed the artist-scientist's spontaneous seizure of the prime design responsibility and his successful conversion of the total capability of tool-augmented man from killingry to advanced livingry — adequate for all humanity" (Buckminster Fuller quoted in "New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller", ed. Chu and Trujillo, Stanford, a book I recently bought at Moe's).

It's hardly original, but it's difficult not to feel that the biggest attraction Buckminster Fuller had for the younger counterculturalists of the 60's and 70's (and their epigones) was that — like any good prophet — his real meaning lay in the general incomprehensibility of his words. They could mean any damn thing you wanted them to mean, since by almost any conventional measure, they meant nothing at all. He spoke his own unique language, but made them feel that he spoke their language, at least in mental translation (his work certainly loses something in the original). The woolliness of the words just helped mask the genially-ruthless technocratic utopianism at the heart of it all (and running through the muddled and often far less genial veins of some of the countercultural movements who used or revered him). A sort of foggy glossolalia born in a collision of Futurism and the Burned-Over District, perhaps. Much of it's not even wrong, as they say.

I think another big part of the reason Fuller was so popular with the US 60's and 70's counterculture is that with things like the breathtakingly hubristic World Game he offered the promise of technology replacing politics. Politics is difficult, it's messy (and often a real come-down for nice middle class countercultural kids), but technology just tends to happen, and usually with a logic that would have been deeply congenial to a lot of white middle-class American kids of the time. Technology provides objective answers without that awful to-and-fro that politics demands; but when the answer to every question seems to be "geodesic dome" or "tensegrity" or "technologists know best", you can't help feeling that the questions might have been a little restricted or that there are some questions you just can't ask.

(And if there were ever a real example of the Canonical American Name it'd be "R. Buckminster Fuller". When I was a kid I just assumed the "Buckminster Fuller" part was a double-barreled last name (like maybe "Sebag-Montefiori"), and that our Bucky was so important no one ever used his first name).

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July 21, 2009

Two Anniversaries

Everybody above a certain age here seems to want to do the big one (all those noisy "Where I was forty years ago…" articles and postings), but fifty years ago today unsung local lad Elijah "Pumpsie" Green became the first guy to break the color barrier at the (then) notoriously whites-only Boston Red Sox. Only ten years before the moon landings, only ten years before Woodstock (and ten years before that local love-fest, Altamont, for that matter), you couldn't play for the Red Sox if you were black, no matter how good you were. Getting to the moon, getting to Boston… worlds apart.

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July 18, 2009

Big Digger

I live in a tug spotter's paradise, with sea-going tugs, tractor tugs, barges, lighters, floating construction cranes, etc., moored on or working the Estuary a few minutes walk from my studio. It's common to see barges in from Seattle or Alaska or LA, but every now and then you see something home-ported at a place you've never heard of and wonder how the hell it got here. For the last week or so there's been a heavy construction barge and associated floating crane moored here from Evansville, Indiana, somewhere deep in the midwest. I'm still nerd enough that this sort of thing always amazes me: this barge has presumably been tugged down the Ohio and the Mississippi, across the Gulf, through the Panama Canal, then up the rough cold west coasts of Mexico and California (at least), to end up moored a block from my front door. Half makes me want to visit Evansville (the long way).

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July 11, 2009

Moe Day

Moe's is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary today. It's sobering to think that I've been going there at least semi-regularly for nearly half that time, and first bought a book there in 1985. Moe's and the Milano (and Cody's before it went belly-up) have defined my Saturday mornings for twenty years now….

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July 06, 2009

Organization Man

Robert McNamara dies (I can just see the SF Chron's headline: "San Francisco Man Dies; Attended University of California at Berkeley").

"When the [Vietnam] war was over, 58,000 Americans were dead and the national social fabric had been torn asunder." (The Washington Post). What US obits like this are consistently leaving out is the number of Vietnamese dead, and what happened to the Vietnamese national social fabric, but that's surely of little concern to the Post, let alone to the US population as a whole. Even nearly fifty years later the US's endless self-absorption and self-pity on the war hasn't completely faded; and McNamara's a handy touchstone for the US's view of the whole disaster, unfairly or not (as typically happens to any complex and interesting person connected to that war).

McNamara became retrospectively wise (as opposed to being seen to be wise in retrospect) about the war; but he said a lot of things about other topics that were wise at the time:
"In 1966, even as the buildup of U.S. forces continued and Cold War tensions gripped Europe, [McNamara] said it was 'a gross oversimplification to regard Communism as the central factor in every conflict throughout the underdeveloped word . . . The United States has no mandate from on high to police the world and no inclination to do so.'" (from the Post's obituary, again).
Well, wise enough; that last clause of his seems diagnostic: the second half of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first often seem defined by the US's inclination to believe it's on a mission from God (or mammon) to police the world; and for a short while, McNamara was deputy chief of police whether he could bring himself to admit it or not. Time to round up the usual suspects, I guess.

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July 05, 2009

Endangered Species

In the Milano this morning a studious old guy in a tidy denim jacket and half-moon glasses, surrounded by overflowing shopping bags of belongings on the floor around him, makes laborious notes while reading a hardback King James bible, a paperback copy of Gramsci's Prison Notebooks on the table next to the bible.

It's such a blast from the past, it stops me dead: twenty years ago you saw sights like this all the time in Berkeley coffee shops (except it was more commonly an old hippy ostentatiously reading Marcuse while bending the ear of anyone unlucky enough to sit within a metre or two of him), but nowadays it's like the reappearance of the Spotted Owl or Bald Eagle. Not sure what to make of this isolated sighting amongst the clacking laptops and the wordless mumbling homeless slumped over the benches…

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July 04, 2009

Them The Savages

"He has […] endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions."

Maybe it's too easy to get all cynical and knowing about things like this, but that one still pulls me up short. Doesn't get a lot of play these days, that sentence, even on a day normally infused with a general atmosphere of self-congratulatory belligerence. No surprise, I guess; somewhere in the gap between the Declaration's great phrases and off-handed hypocrisies lies the difference between words to die for and words to kill by.

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