Who Is Buckminster Fuller?
Buckminster Fuller, according to Hugh Kenner's estimable new study, Bucky,1 has a collection of 3,500 clippings about himself, as well as 80,000 letters and virtually every other scrap of paper with his name on it that has ever come his way. Fuller apparently looks upon the collecting of Fulleriana as a public trust—he intends to leave the world a complete “Chronofile” of the life of a 20th-century man. For similar reasons—to estimate the impact on the public consciousness of the principles of universal evolution he has revealed—Fuller keeps close tabs on his own public success. An indefatigable maker of models and drawer of charts, he has constructed a linear graph showing the frequency of his own appearances in the press. After lying disappointingly close to the horizon for many years, the vital line began to rise gratifyingly and by now has doubtless run clear out of the picture. “This means that Buckminster Fuller is becoming ever more explicitly a part of everyone's experience of living in the 20th century, and we need not feel superior to the satisfaction this gives him.” The recipient of numerous awards and medals, chiefly for architecture, a counselor to kings and cabinets, he was nominated in 1969 for the Nobel Prize. After lean and hungry years and repeated rebuffs and failures, Buckminster Fuller has become a fact of life, a name to conjure with. Everybody has heard of him. But—exactly who is Buckminster Fuller?
The inventor of the Geodesic Dome; that much everyone knows. And perhaps the most highly honored unread prophet in his country. On first looking into Fuller's formidable writings, one's immediate impulse is to look away and blink, and the next is to explode with irritation.
The IN'S are discontinuous. The OUT'S are continuous. out is nothingness, nonexperience. Only the nonexperience nothingness infers a continuum. The nonevent continuum is the novent. Inferentially, the novent continuum permeates the finitely populated withinness and comprises the finite novent withoutness (“Planetary Planning (I),” The American Scholar, Winter 1970-71).
Coming upon Fuller's writings is like coming upon one of his domes for the first time, unwarned. Anything so strange, so unexpected, but so self-confident, must be taken seriously. Only where is the way in? Like the dome and like the Fuller universe, the writing is “organic” in the fashionable term, a complete system and, to the casual reader, a closed one. Says Robert W. Marks, editor of Ideas and Integrities (1963), a collection of autobiographical writings, “It assumes a committed earnestness on the part of the reader.” Perhaps half of Fuller's published books are unedited transcripts of his five-hour lectures. Several more, including Nine Chains to the Moon (1971) and No More Secondhand God (1963), are collections of papers and occasional writing mainly dating from the late 1920's through the early 50's—a period in which he was less called upon as a lecturer than he is today. There is also Intuition (1973), his most recent and accessible book, which is entirely composed of Fuller “poetry”—lines of uneven length running down the left-hand margin. There are those who damn Fuller's poetry as typographical pretension and those who hail it as genius. He has called it “mental mouthfuls and ventilated prose,” and that is probably the best description. Most of his writings deal with the same themes, often in the same language; he has returned over and over again to a core set of ideas that have apparently engrossed him for at least thirty years. And most of them feature sharp shafts directed at the body politic and stunningly apt metaphors, intermixed with long patches of the purely impenetrable.
For those with a limited amount of time or a low tolerance for frustration, the best way into Fuller is undoubtedly through Kenner. “A Guided Tour of Buckminster Fuller” is the subtitle of Kenner's study, and Kenner is a guide both knowledgeable and affable; sympathetic, leisurely, and with infinite patience to explain. He is to Fuller “the better craftsman,” as T. S. Eliot said of Ezra Pound, after Pound had carved “The Waste Land” out of the monumental stuff of Eliot's unedited verse. “The century's most tireless explainer,” Kenner calls Fuller, who now spends nearly 300 days each year jetting around the world to conferences and lectures, where he proclaims the same gospel again and again, extemporizing variations on his favorite themes in verbal marathons. The first of many ironies surrounding Fuller is that Kenner is by far the more effective explainer of Fuller's own work.
And the first of the many problems in discussing Fuller's work is to decide what to call it—and him. He himself would quickly point out that the desire to pin a label on him is a symptom of our age's unhealthy craving for specialization. (Not that he isn't quick with labels himself.) He would also be gleeful and triumphant at our difficulty in finding a name-tag for him. “I seem to be a verb,” he has said. “I am not a thing—a noun.”2 (Yet a noun is the name not only of a thing but of a person.) “Architect” is the noun most would apply to him, but Fuller has no degree or license in architecture, nor in engineering, nor in any other field. (He does have a card in the machinists' union.) Born in 1895 to a family well-rooted in New England (Margaret Fuller, Emerson's friend, was his great-aunt), he followed three generations of his forebears to Harvard, but was expelled in 1914 for general irresponsibility. He then worked in a textile mill, served as a naval officer in World War I, held various managerial positions in business, and spent more time and money than he could afford writing massive, unreadable, and unpublished treatises on the universe, which he sometimes had printed at his own expense and sent off wholesale to important people.
For five years during the 20's, Fuller also tangled with the construction industry, attempting to manufacture and market a synthetic building material invented by his father-in-law. He quickly concluded that the building trades—inefficient, irrational, either disorganized or too highly organized by a cluster of overlapping unions—were the only significant area of modern life still largely unaffected by the Industrial Revolution. In 1927, partly through his own mismanagement and naiveté he lost the fledgling company he had created. Broke, without a job, and with a wife and baby daughter, he considered whether he should commit suicide for his family's sake. Standing by a lake in Chicago, he concluded that, “I have faith in the integrity of the anticipatory intellectual wisdom which we may call ‘God’” (Ideas and Integrities). He further concluded that God knew best “whether I may be of any value to the integrity of the universe.” He decided to dedicate himself to understanding the meaning of his own varied and colorful experience, which he considered to be his only asset, and also “to peel off from conventional livelihood preoccupations and to enter into a period of research and development.” As a first step, he undertook a two-year moratorium on speech. He concluded that words had gotten him into a good deal of trouble and that he would use them no more until he was quite certain of what they meant and that he was actually communicating with others. The language he has evolved since he felt it safe to speak again is a distinctive and personal one, with its own peculiar vocabulary and often creaky syntax.
Beginning in the 20's and continuing through the next three decades, he also turned his attention increasingly to making models and designs, devising the Dymaxion car, house, bathroom, and map which bemused futurist-minded Americans of the 30's and 40's. All of them were shaped according to his personal understanding of human needs and of space-and-motion principles; all of them incorporated unique advantages (the three-wheeled Dymaxion car could turn in a tight circle) and disadvantages (it also tended to head into cross-winds and needed an experienced sailor at the rudder); and all of them looked like no car, map, bathroom, or house ever seen before, which no doubt partly accounted for their failure to go into mass production in spite of Fuller's hard work and perennial optimism.
“Inventor,” then, must be his title. But the only invention of his in wide use is the Geodesic Dome (50,000 “official” domes around the world, says Kenner, many of them climbing toys in playgrounds, plus an unknown number of others built by youthful communards and woods-dwellers), and it is not chiefly as an inventor that Fuller is now besought to lecture. Ezra Pound called him “friend of the universe, bringer of happiness, liberator.” (A facsimile of the inscription in Pound's handwriting is rather puzzlingly found facing the title page in Intuition.) Kenner calls him “publicity agent for the universe,” and unfriendly folk are discoverable who feel he explains it as though he had invented it. He calls himself a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist,” yet it is apparently many years since he has created new designs, and for a design scientist, he has written relatively little about design (and then as often as not about its philosophical and social implications) and a great deal about history, education, economics, religion, politics, and what is best described as “natural philosophy.”
He has also written a great deal about geometry: about the qualities of structures in space; the nature of the “interaccommodative” forces that are given substance in structure; the elegant and economical patternings of energy that nature exhibits. Out of his musings on the properties of geometric figures, plane and three-dimensional, came the Dome, its near-relation the Tensegrity Sphere (tension + integrity), the Octet Truss, and the Tensegrity Mast designed by Kenneth Snelson, a student of Fuller's at Black Mountain College. All of them are compounded out of such quirky and interesting figures as the pentagon or the octahedron. All of them are complex, lacy structures that look as if they should fall down, but don't. (They achieve their stability not by weight, long associated in our minds with strength, but by the interplay of opposed forces, the two-way push most simply demonstrated in the arch and keystone.) All of them are based on figures and principles well known to the ancient Greeks and to all mathematicians since, but rarely given palpable shape by men obsessed with the square and the cube as models of reliability. So far, all of them except the Dome have found no practical application and are most likely to be met with in an art museum, and all of them are impossible to talk about without the use of drawings and elaborate explanations. The cardinal virtue of Bucky, a book whose airy strength is a compliment to its subject, is its ability to illustrate Fuller's “energetic” geometry.
The best summary title for Buckminster Fuller may in fact be “sage,” and it is perhaps in the light of that title, and everything it suggests by way of cultural association, that we should study his theories and beliefs, the methods and materials he uses, the assumptions with which he begins, the sentiments and habits of mind he both calls forth and reinforces in his audience. But we must also take note of Fuller's own main answer to the question of what to call him: a “comprehensivist.”
In my way of thinking, the only reason that I am known at all is because I set about deliberately in 1927 to be a comprehensivist in the era of almost exclusive trending and formal disciplining toward specialization. Inasmuch as everyone else was becoming a specialist, I didn't have any competition whatsoever (Utopia or Oblivion, 1969).
To be a comprehensivist, as Fuller uses the word, means more than to be a jack-of-all-trades or even a Renaissance Man. It also means to be concerned with the large issues, the largest that can be imagined: What is the universe? And what is man's place in it? Nature intended men to be comprehensivists, Fuller believes; the “comprehensive, anticipatory, universal intellect” endowed mankind with Mind, the unique, metaphysical generalizing capacity, as well as with Brain, the physical, information-storage-and-retrieval system. The special-case contents of brain are scanned by mind in search of first principles. “My philosophy requires of me that I convert not only my own experiences but whatever I can learn of other men's experiences into statements of evolutionary trending,” he has said, and:
The most poetical experiences of my life have been those moments of conceptual comprehension of a few of the extraordinary generalized principles and their complex interactions which are apparently employed in the governance of universal evolution (No More Secondhand God).
Children, Fuller believes, are naturally and instinctively comprehensivists. “The child still wants to understand UNIVERSE and has big questions, and the teacher says, ‘Never mind that . . . you learn the parts first . . . A.B.C. . . .’ Then the child goes to college and never does get back to the whole.”3 The failure of grown-ups to answer their comprehensive questions fully and truthfully, Fuller thinks, is the major reason that children get “de-geniused.”
Ideally, therefore, education should begin with “the inventory of all known, i.e., all as-yet-discovered, generalized principles and proceed from that whole to the realization of special cases” (Earth, Inc., 1973). The large generalizations are to be discovered not by a careful stringing together of particulars, but by an intuitive leap of the mind out of experience. The principles thus discovered are then used to illuminate and organize the particulars. The chief danger of specialization is that it “tends to shut off the wide band tuning searches and thus to preclude further discovery of the all-powerful generalized principles” (“Planetary Planning”).
To a college audience at Auburn University, Fuller explained the origins of specialization. In the dim past, he revealed, the “head-men”—those whose strength allowed them to seize power in the constant jungle-warfare that was life—found it useful to have “brain-slaves”—bright subjects who could make a better sword or understand the enemy's language. Eventually, the head-men founded Oxford University and similar institutions, the better to educate their brain-slaves in sinister specialties. And Oxford provided the model for American universities. “For years we couldn't have a school unless it was built in Georgian-style architecture or something like it. Whatever Oxford had, we had to have” (Approaching the Benign Environment, 1970).
The head-men and their clever slaves eventually took to the sea, realizing the vital importance of new worlds to conquer and of speed in reaching them. The daring pirates, a sort of secret, multi-national combine, established worldwide dominions, including the British Empire. They also invented the political state, to assure their possessions while they were off conquering more. “They said to the yokels, ‘From now on this is called Italy and you are the head man and I want you to wear a lot of purple and gold and make yourself very prominent, because I am not at all worried about you people here on the land. But I am worried about those other pirates.’” The cartel of head-men controlled the earth and concealed their own identities until the Great Depression. Then their empires fell apart and they were identified and discredited, and a new era began. “The voice of the common man had something to say that could be listened to. This voice had produced a Magna Carta and a Bill of Rights.”
For all their depredations, the head-men and their brain-slaves produced an ever-accelerating number of important technological discoveries, and their decision to make themselves seafaring was of crucial importance. Fuller, who as a child summered on a New England island and who is an avid sailor (his racing sloop is named Intuition), has testified that “. . . ships, sailors and the sea/ Have been my greatest/ Teachers and conditioners” (Intuition). When a man is in the middle of the ocean, he has to learn how to do everything and take account of nature's forces to a degree never demanded of landsmen—to become, in short, a comprehensivist. From the experience of men with the ocean—and now with the air-ocean—has come much of our most useful technology—navigation, metal-alloying, refrigeration, radio, radar—which has been only slowly and grudgingly adapted for wider use by landlubbers wedded to the status quo. Shipbuilders of even such mammoth vessels as the Queen Mary, Fuller points out, make painstaking efforts to get the maximum return from their materials per pound of weight, while architects piling up brick and stone to accommodate perhaps fewer people than an ocean liner don't know within a thousand tons what their buildings weigh. (Fuller knows precisely the weight of one of his domes. It can be airlifted into place and will then resist earthquakes and hurricanes better than a conventional structure weighing many times more, due to its designed-in strength.) One of Fuller's many beloved dualisms is that between creative, mobile sea-people and dull, plodding land-people with their myopic tendency toward specialization. In Fuller's vaguely Rousseauesque view, evil is almost invariably due to some mistaken notion, and half the evil in the world derives from specialization.
Specialization has bred feelings of isolation, futility, and confusion in individuals. It has also resulted in the individual's leaving responsibility for thinking and social action to others. Specialization breeds biases, which ultimately aggregate as international and ideological discord, which in turn leads to war (“Planetary Planning”).
War and other social ills such as tyranny also flow from another cause: “the scientifically discredited premise that there can never be enough life support for all” (“Planetary Planning”). Malthusians through the centuries (Malthus is a favorite Fuller enemy) have said, “It's them or us,” and evolved their lethal specialties to decide the issue. If there were enough to go around, Fuller reasons, there would probably be no more war. And he is convinced there can be enough as soon as we get down to technological business and stop wasting our time looking for political solutions.
. . . there is nothing in politics except knowing how to do without or taking it from one and giving it to the other. That is what the sociologists and politicians attempt to do. They still say it has to be just me or you (Approaching the Benign Environment).
Fuller would like to eliminate politics along with the political state—or else reduce politics to housekeeping functions along the lines of the stewardess who warns us to fasten our seat-belts. We must turn our attention to reforming the environment, he says over and over again, not to reforming human nature. Mankind's greatest benefactors, “the Leonardo-types,” have been bent on transforming their surroundings rather than transforming people. There is only one revolution which will be welcome to all peoples, the Design Science Revolution which will guarantee enough of everything for everybody. Fuller believes we have already, often unconsciously, made a good start in that direction.
Throughout most of human history, he points out, only 1 per cent of human beings were able to enjoy life “success”—living out their natural life spans free of disease or dire poverty. For the 99 per cent life was short and painful. Since 1900, however, the number of “successful” people has risen to 40 per cent through the miracles of technology. Most often the life-giving technology has developed as a by-product of war, when we commit resources that in peacetime we insist we could not “afford”—and which we erroneously then charge up to the National Debt. But, Fuller insists, we can afford to do anything which we need to do and know how to do. A new economics, a new system of accounting is needed which understands that wealth—“augmented forward capability”—is really only energy shaped by knowledge. According to basic physical law, energy is neither created nor destroyed. And knowledge must always increase; even a failed experiment teaches us something—we cannot learn less. By applying knowledge to the abounding energy already supplied by the Universal Intelligence, we can bring about the Design Science Revolution and worldwide peace and prosperity.
There is an inherently minimum set of essential concepts and current information conversance with which could lead to operating our planet Earth to the lasting satisfaction and health of all humanity (“Planetary Planning”).
Once again, we come back to first principles so often obscured by specialization; to those “statements of evolutionary trending.” What are these golden concepts? What must we do to be saved?
First, we must learn to understand synergy, defined as “Behaviors of a whole system/Unpredicted by the separate behaviors/Of any of its parts” (Intuition, emphasis Fuller's). Fuller's favorite example of synergy is chrome-nickel-steel. Each of the metals in the alloy has a measurable strength defined as the pounds of tension it will bear before breaking; however, the strength of the alloy is greater than that of any of the constituents—and greater even than the sum of their strengths. When all of the components are brought together, something new and better is created. Similarly, examination of a magnet on the one hand and a bunch of iron filings on the other won't predict their behavior when they are combined. As the old saying has it, “It's bigger than both of us.”
Synergy is of vital importance in the Fuller scheme for it is the key to ephemeralization, which means “doing more with less.” And ephemeralization in turn is the key to worldwide abundance. Improved design, making use of the principles of synergy, can allow us an ever greater return from an ever smaller investment of resources. A communications satellite weighing a quarter of a ton, Fuller loves to remark, is outperforming 75,000 tons of undersea cable. He is convinced that technology around the world is yielding only a 4-per-cent return on the energy it consumes, due to poor design. Better design could increase efficiency three- or four-fold, giving us that much more product for the same energy expense. By attending to the big picture instead of to the details, we could enjoy undreamed-of abundance and at the same time steer Spaceship Earth in harmony with nature's laws. Fuller, for example, has discovered that all the sulphur emitted by all the world's smokestacks as pollution each year exactly equals the amount mined for industrial use. Why not find a way to “mine” the smokestacks, instead of trying to reform their owners?
Fuller is both “intuitively aware” and “scientifically confident”
That a physically permitted design revolution
Is indeed feasible
* * *
Which can do so very much more
With progressively ever less
Of kilowatts, minutes, grams and pollution
* * *
As to be able to raise
The overall percentage of humanity
Enjoying a satisfactorily adequate standard of
To a one hundred percent ‘haveness’
And do so
Without having any human
Prosper at the expense of another . . . (Intuition).
This is the heart of Fuller's oft-repeated message and probably the only part clearly grasped by many of his listeners. Through a proper understanding of the universe and its workings, we can let them eat cake, and have it, too. And the cake will regenerate itself, and n6body will covet anybody else's slice.
Fuller is the prophet of abundance, and any attempt to evaluate critically his strengths and weaknesses must begin by acknowledging his tireless and finally rewarding insistence that we open our eyes to the riches our technology has brought us and rid ourselves of the mental habits appropriate to scarcity. As we continue to think that the way to make a building strong is to pile up weight, so we continue to think that men must “earn the right to live” by spending their days at a “job,” even if what they do is useless or counterproductive. (Featherbedding union members pretending to be railway brakemen are “earning” their livings, Kenner adds by way of illustration.) Since there is plenty to go around, let us instead give everyone a “research fellowship” and send him off to think or even fish. One in 100,000 will come up with a discovery sufficiently useful to pay for the rest. It worked well once before, Fuller points out, when we called it “the G.I. Bill.”
Such proposals raise many obvious questions which Fuller has no interest in thinking through. Still, the sheer fact of abundance is one we have not sufficiently taken account of. Fuller, partnered by Kenner, spurs the imagination to analyze the myriad effects of riches on our society, and frees it to speculate on the rational uses of wealth. His passion and faith are, literally, inspiring, as is also his confession of faith in the sublime reason of Scenario Universe. Space, energy, pattern, process are the concepts that he loves to work with, and when he compounds them, even in his difficult verbiage, they go off with the beautiful suddenness of a sky-rocket, lighting up the whole scene. We don't experience the physical universe in the same way after hearing Buckminster Fuller talk about the speed of light, or what happens when a stone is dropped into the water, or why there is no such thing as a “sunset.” Though many of the facts he offers have been theoretically familiar since grade school, he brings them together with his own enthusiasm to make a critical mass, and the landscape is never the same again.
The same is true of many of his social observations, even when they are not new, even when they are oversimplified. While he is frequently and unconsciously the inadequately dressed emperor, he is also at times the clear-eyed child. Much that he has “discovered” (apart, of course, from his inventions) was well known before him, but he is authentically that favorite American character, the unconventional boy kicked out of college who has lived to amaze all the Learn'd Astronomers with his wondrous inventions.
The problems, however, cannot be avoided; many of them, indeed, cluster precisely around Fuller's central doctrine of abundance, his notion of a pie big enough for everyone (itself hardly a new idea, having been expressed repeatedly over the years by Fuller's reviled politicians). The question here, as always, is one of means. We may read through Fuller's entire corpus of a dozen works without finding half a dozen suggestions as to just how our efficiency is to be increased, what changes are necessary, who has an invention or an idea that might help. We could all have our own cheap, lightweight dome to live in and, as a spin-off from space technology (developed, ironically, by specialists), we could perhaps each have “a little black box,” a complete life-support system which would also be portable and cheaply rented each year. We could also find a way of mining those smokestacks. (Presumably the nation's laboratories are not empty of people trying to do that and many other things. Fuller tends to write as if nobody but he had noticed human needs.) That is about the sum of his concrete suggestions for bringing about the Design Science Revolution. We turn hopefully to one of his essays called “Ten Proposals for Improving the World” and there we find the following headings: Elimination of Property by Making Ownership Onerous; Elimination of All World Sovereignties; Realization of Design Science Competence. The short paragraph under the last heading explains helpfully that we must find out “how to do so much more with so little in support of total ecology as to render all humanity economically and physiologically successful.”
Fuller is sublimely indifferent to such mundane issues as the first (or second or third) step, to detail, to contradiction, to what Mark Twain called the “cussedness of things in general.” (He does not seem to have heard of Murphy's Law, concedes Kenner, which holds that if anything can go wrong, it will.) “I was born cross-eyed,” he likes to tell his audiences.
Not until I was four years old was it discovered that this was caused by my being abnormally far-sighted. . . . Until four I could see only large patterns, houses, trees, outlines of people with blurred coloring. While I saw two dark areas on human faces, I did not see a human eye or a teardrop. . . . Despite my new ability to apprehend details, my childhood's spontaneous dependence upon only big pattern clues has persisted (Utopia or Oblivion).
Fuller's ruling passion is for first principles. Sage-like, he is so intent upon truth as to be willing to overlook mere fact. His books abound in inaccuracies, small and large. Dates, quotations, statistics, historical facts rarely appear the same way twice. According to Kenner, Fuller acknowledges that when he worked as a consultant to Fortune in the late 30's, he fell into the habit of relying on the magazine's excellent research department to tidy up his references, and he has apparently not since found anyone else to perform the task. That small errors along the way may accumulate into a large falsity apparently does not concern him—he begins at the other end of the process. A Geodesic Dome, Kenner tells us, requires the most precise machining and joining of parts; the margin for error is much smaller than in conventional structures. Fuller as Thinker, however, begins with the largest formulations he can manage and rarely pursues them down to the point where cracks or crooked edges become apparent.
Utopia or Oblivion, a collection of lectures, contain perhaps the worst offenses in this regard. One is a misstatement of the way that some chemical bonds are formed, with the facts reversed to accommodate Fuller's high regard for the tetrahedron.4 The other and potentially more damaging error is a misrepresentation of the published research of Benjamin Bloom, a psychologist who has studied some of the correlations between IQ and environment. In support of his own faith that every child is a potential genius, Fuller has stated not once but several times that Bloom can predict a child's IQ within 1 per cent of accuracy on the basis of a small cluster of environmental factors having mainly to do with housing and such considerations as parental reading and drinking habits. Bloom has made no such claim, Kenner acknowledges—it would be astonishing if any psychologist had, in the currently vexed state of intelligence studies—and the facts as Bloom presents them are a good deal less tidy than they appear in the Fuller redaction. In geometry as well, Kenner says, “The fit between reality and Bucky's abstractions seems to be not quite that near.” Fuller makes no deliberate effort to deceive, Kenner is convinced; “creative misrememberings” is his gentle term for such errors as that covering Bloom's work, and “mythologizing” for the poetic license with which Fuller generally treats his personal history and experience. Mythologizing, certainly, is the only positive term for his amazing version of the race's history, not to mention the history of English and American education. We may legitimately ask when mythologizing becomes not an imaginative condensation of truth, but mere ignorance or misstatement, and a potentially dangerous distaste for social complexity.
We cannot, of course, know what was actually happening at the Auburn University lecture while Fuller was delivering his short course in Western Civilization. (He has repeated it on other occasions.) Perhaps he was winking broadly and the audience was rocking with merry laughter. But the indifference to history of many young people is in any case notorious, and we have not lacked for equally, if more tendentiously, mythologized accounts of human affairs that have been taken with the utmost seriousness. Fuller himself is aware of this persistent social fact.
That there is an insatiable popular demand for an overall historical perspective is well-documented by the enormous and continuing sale of Bibles, World Almanacs, encyclopedias, and works such as H. G. Wells's Outline of History (Earth, Inc.).
This sort of historical perspective with a few clear lines running into the future is what we always ask of our sages. We can also imagine that not a few of Fuller's younger listeners, perhaps chafing at required courses and the exigencies of the grading system, are happy to hear that what the future requires of them is to eschew specialization and concentrate on asking the “big questions.” He assured the Auburn students that they could quickly and easily get “tutored” in any special knowledge—microbiology?—they should happen to require.
Sages commonly offer a special language unique to the initiated—spells, mantras, pious and powerful formulas—and Fuller has a fine supply of words and symbols to conjure with. His favorite symbol, the tetrahedron, makes a good starting point for an unfortunately limited examination of the way in which he typically manipulates language and concepts.
Thus, a favorite Fuller technique, apparently of reasoning as well as of lecturing, is what might be called philosophical “bait and switch.” Having established an example or a definition in one realm, he leaps with it into another and speeds to a triumphant conclusion before anyone realizes the plane of discourse has been changed. The sale is concluded and Fuller is on to the next item while the dizzied customer is trying to figure out what he's bought. So it is with the tetrahedron which, according to a Fuller Law, expresses all the relationships among experiences:
The number of telephone lines necessary to interequip various numbers of individuals so that any two individuals will always have their unique private telephone line is always (n2-n)/2, where N is the number of telephones.
Now comes the quick leap and turn, while the reader/listener is still wrapped in telephone wires.
This is to say that all the special interrelationships of all experiences—comprehension of which would be the key to what we call complete understanding of “what everything is all about”—is always (n2-n)/2 (“Planetary Planning”).
When these relationships are pictured geometrically, the tetrahedron quickly appears, and so “understanding is symmetrically tetrahedronal”—if we assume that the relationship between two experiences is a single, direct, back-and-forth connection like a telephone line.
Similarly, Fuller likes to remark that science has discovered most extinct species to have died out because they became overspecialized and could no longer adapt to change. The same thing could happen to us, he warns, and seemingly never notices that he is equating two different meanings of “specialization.” A case could surely be made that the proliferation of arcane specialties in our time represents precisely a socially cooperative effort—relying on one another's expertise—to adapt to change and to an increasingly complex environment. It also seems to have eluded Fuller's notice that many of the life-enhancing scientific discoveries that he hails, such as the cracking of the genetic code, were accomplished by specialists.
The conclusion is inescapable that, for a poet and philosopher, Fuller is curiously blind to the implications of many of his own words and ideas. He often seems to use them more as talismans than as tools for thought. Ephemeralization, for example—doing more with less—is a useful concept, although under the name of “efficiency” it has certainly been heard of before. However, merely invoking the concept does not solve the problems, including stubborn ecological ones, which Fuller seems to assume it will obviate. One of his domes, Kenner says, could enclose the whole cathedral at Seville and yet weigh only as much as three of the cathedral's stone columns (besides being constructed in a minute fraction of the time). The dome would seem to be a perfect example of ephemeralization—until we recall that the resources and industrial apparatus needed for its computerized calculations, precision-cut metal struts, and plastic sealants make medieval stone-quarrying look like digging in a sand-pile. One farmer can produce as much food as ten a century ago—but the other nine are now employed in tractor factories and chemical fertilizer plants. An analysis of resource use would probably indicate that many modern economic and technological marvels result from doing more with more.
Indeed, a particular irony of Fuller's renown as a contemporary social philosopher is that a culture becoming increasingly wary of machinery and the growth ethic should have taken to its heart the very Apostle of Technology. At a time when ecologists worry about the ill effects of rapid industrialization in underdeveloped countries and affluent Americans piously recycle aluminum foil, Fuller's solution to the problems of the world is not less growth, but more. The Design Requirements (No More Secondhand God) of the scientific dwelling on which he has brooded for decades seem to envision the use of “energy slaves” rather than human labor for every task of daily living. Everyone, of course, has his own notion of good technology and bad technology, depending on his personal predilection, and Fuller's may be inferred from a careful study of his writings: bad technology is whatever contributes to waste and high living. The distinction between responsible and irresponsible growth is, however, rarely spelled out.
And always there remains the problem that most people stubbornly continue to prefer worshipping in a stone cathedral to worshipping in a Geodesic Dome. Among the small-change of actuality that Fuller usually overlooks are all the kinds of issues summed up as “the human element.” It is hardly necessary to bother with “reforming” human nature if one simply refuses to take account of all the irrationalities and romanticisms that have been summed up under that rubric. The jaw-breaking neologisms and cranky constructions that often make his writing so formidable—not a “home,” not even a “house,” but a “dwelling advantage”—seem partly to arise from an effort to avoid language that carries connotation (they may also serve to obscure the heavy dependency of his vision on the abundant use of electric or nuclear power). That people are subject to preferences, desires, traditions—as well as to conflicts and contrarieties—seems of little moment to him. When ideology impinges on his attention, he views it not as an inevitable product of the questing mind, but as an unnatural accretion caused by specialization. His main acknowledgment of such irrational problems as an intolerable crime rate in the richest nation in the world is a crude and simple environmentalism, with particular emphasis on housing. He has proposed enthusiastically that 1,000 people could live cheaply and comfortably in a giant dome (“Beehives,” was the prompt reaction of one woman who saw his models), without ever questioning whether they would get along together any better there than in a high-rise project.
Fuller, with his proposals for eliminating property and national states, is of course very much out to reform human nature in spite of his disclaimers. He has defined our major task as, “how to get all of humanity to educate itself swiftly enough to generate spontaneous social behaviors that will avoid extinction” (“Planetary Planning”). The veriest reformer could hardly say more. Fuller does not desire to make men good, it is true, but he is very intent upon making them reasonable.
Until humanity starts behaving
In logical ways
For logical reasons
Natural evolution will force it
To keep on behaving logically
For seemingly illogical reasons—
Resulting inexorably, as at present,
In humanity's backing
Rump-bumpingly into its future . . .
Surely the reformer most to be held in awe—or fear—is he who knows that natural evolution is on his side.
Fuller is most comfortable when thinking of human beings as machines, ecological functions, “types,” or expressions of Universal Mind. Man is a “transceiver” for God. He is also a “self-balancing, 28-jointed, adapter-base biped; an electrochemical reduction plant,” piloted by a “Phantom Captain,” who is weightless, who is not tuneable by the senses, whose departure we call death (Nine Chains to the Moon). Man is also a “pattern-integrity.” Before countless audiences, Fuller has held up a rope with a knot in it. The knot is not the manila of the rope; the same knot could exist in nylon. It is not substance at all, but pattern. A cow is a “knot” which takes energy from the sun via grass and passes it on as milk or meat. A man is a knot whose function is applying Mind to bring order into the inherently disorderly, energetic, physical universe. “What is man, that Thou art mindful of him?” asked the psalmist, and Buckminster Fuller replies, “The anti-entropic principle in universe.”
Fuller professes a mind-and-matter dualism which would have delighted a medieval monk or an American Puritan. A haunting familiarity runs through many of the ideas of the “Citizen of the 21st Century” who wants to jolt us out of our accustomed ways of thinking. The infatuation with technology and the conceit of the human being as a wondrous machine have a 19th-century freshness. The implicit faith in progress and human perfectibility also animated 19th-century minds, and Fuller's Benevolent Intelligence seems compounded out of the Great Watchmaker of the Deists and Emerson's Over-Soul. Property is obsolete and only weighs us down, insists Fuller; “Simplify, simplify,” said Thoreau. Every child is born a genius and only gets de-geniused because its conventional parents tell it untruths about the universe; “Shades of the prison house begin to close/ Upon the growing boy,” wrote Wordsworth. Fuller discovered the “Phantom Captain” as Gilbert Ryle was putting to rest “the ghost in the machine.” He can inform us that gold is not wealth and urge a new system of accounting our economic capacities as though Keynes had never lived. Even the fruitful concept of synergy, which Fuller is distressed to find known to only 3 per cent of his educated listeners, has a respectable history as the rule that “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” A heavy cost of Fuller's truncated education has been that he has had to rediscover the whole cultural world himself. Academic humanists cringing before the big stick of Relevance may take heart: the popularity of Buckminster Fuller suggests in its way a great demand for. traditional thought.
It also indicates a demand for reassurance and optimism inevitable when the times are out of joint. Social dislocation always produces new prophets who confirm that the land of milk and honey lies just ahead. A clear, scale map with the obstacles and pitfalls well marked is rarely provided, but we are getting a commodity even more welcome—the assurance that all we have to do is abandon outworn rules and conventions and rely on our natural intuition. As Reed Whittemore remarked in a review of Fuller and Marshall McLuhan: “Our social machine is stuck; the regular mechanics are perplexed; so we call in the wizards of Oz.”5
Fuller is clearly a benevolent man, and he appeals to benevolence. He also appeals to impluses socially dangerous in our time: to a craving for political simplicity, to a demand for technological wealth without its burdens, to a monolithic and essentially manipulative view of human nature, to a desire for social and historical myth that can explain once and for all “what everything is all about.” Society needs sages and also needs to pay close attention to them. They throw down the glove for the next generation, and perhaps Fuller's greatest performance as a much-touted (and often inaccurate) social prophet was in coming so early and intuitively on the very kind of gloves our age would most like to seize upon. His followers in their homemade domes, living on organic vegetables and myth and pondering the big questions, will pay the price for his romanticism. No doubt many of them will think it a good bargain. No doubt too, if they find the price high, they will generously share it with the rest of us.
1 Morrow, 338 pp., $7.95.
2 Quoted in I Seem to Be a Verb, an amiable non-book, by Fuller with Jerome Agel and Quentin Fiore (Bantam, 1970, 192 pp. [to be read backwards and forwards], $1.65).
3 Quoted in Buckminster Fuller to Children of Earth, compiled and photographed by Cam Smith, Doubleday, 1972 (paper).
4 The tetrahedron—pyramid—is Fuller's philosopher's stone. In its twelve angles of 60° each, Fuller finds Nature's own system of measurement, the Universal Coordinates. “A tetrahedron is the most fundamental of all structures” (Utopia or Oblivion). It is the smallest stable “omnitriangulated, omnisymmetrical” structure The carbon atom. present in all organic compounds, offers four potential links to all other atoms, and all organic compounds contain molecules structured tetrahedronally. If we attempt to pack four spheres in such a way as to get the closest fit, with every one touching every other one, we must arrange them not in a square, but in a tetrahedron—three ping-pong balls arranged in a triangle with the fourth perched on top. If we “open” a “closed” system—a tiger is Fuller's example, but presumably any other object, a chair, a bust of Homer, will exhibit the same property—by skinning off its surface and flattening it out, the sum of all the wedges we have to cut in it to make it lie flat and “open” will always be 720°, a tetrahedron.
5 New Republic, June 10, 1972.