Lets get all the scoffing and looking askance, other eye rolling gestures, out of the way up front, with my bended knee confession that I am no university professor of American literature.
No, I’ve been more going by “math teacher” as my trade, but then detractors have pointed out that math teaching wasn’t my full time gig through almost all of my career. True, I taught high school geometry through calculus as a first job out of college, in Jersey City, but that was in the early 1980s and only for two years.
True, I was in a geometry classroom (3D animation) even today, in 2018, as a part of an after school program. I’ve been chronicling this chapter elsewhere on Medium.
After leaving Princeton, with my BA degree, signed by then president Bowen, I continued my research into the contemporary scene in philosophy. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig had just come out. Professor Rorty had said some good things about it, though he complained about its length.
As a younger man I’d read Freud, Alan Watts, Ernest Becker, and Norman O. Brown, among others.
Quite naturally, when X is the focus of one’s undergraduate reading, then “X as it continues manifesting today” (if it does), remains a focus going forward.
Like if you study theater, you tend to watch contemporary theater. If you study music, you go out of your way to sample contemporary music.
Especially if you’re of a futurist bent, like my dad was (a city planner), then you may hope to predict, anticipate, and even help shape, some next chapter.
In my case, you had faculty member Walter Kaufmann telling us undergrads that the est Training had been of philosophical interest to him (something he’d done the previous summer?), while meanwhile “Mr. Est” himself (Werner Erhard), felt led to accept “Bucky” as one of his teachers. Check Youtube for some of the records of their public meetups maybe? John Denver fits in here too.
So from my point of view, based on additional research of course, here were two emerging contemporary philosophers (still alive), and both would have issues with reputation.
Fuller’s prototype three wheeled car had been driven off the road by a well-connected politico, killing the driver, right when his Dymaxion Car looked like it might go mainstream. Although the car was eventually exonerated, the damage to Fuller’s reputation had been real and disappointing.
Fuller continued to come under posthumous attack, such as when the Wall Street Journal resurrected an old Dymaxion car from some museum, and took it out for a spin, leading to a suggestive story about how it seemed quite unstable to the WSJ driver, implying it surely could have swerved off the road with no help from LAWCAP (Fuller’s coin for “lawyer-capitalism” — a language he practiced, yet considered obsolete).
In the meantime, the more Fuller-friendly Sir Norman Foster built a new Dymaxion car from scratch, using original plans and vintage parts of that time, and came up with a “dream boat” version closer to Fuller’s ideal, one that handled well.
What Bucky was hoping to inspire with his prototype, as a possibility, was an airplane that could drive on the road, and could even motor over water. He called it an “omni-medium plummeting device” according to J. Baldwin.
Even today we don’t have many designs for vehicles that multi-modal. Fuller was ahead of his time, by design. Facebook is now full of short movies about multi-modal vehicles, especially car-airplanes and car-boats.
Erhard would likewise soon be tripped up by outrageous slings and arrows cooked up in the mainstream media, a notorious source of fake news. Again, I recommend Youtube as a source. CBS ended up retracting its misleading 60 Minutes episode on the guy.
I’m not saying the Dymaxion Car was anything but a car when it made its initial debut. Nor was the Dymaxion House, in a first iteration, as now exhibited at the Henry Ford Museum, a dome. The structure, designed for mass production, featured an hexagonal floor plan and hung on a utility pole. Fuller was all about making buildings lighter, paying attention to weight, and employing more tension, less compression (he called this “doing more with less”).
Synergetics eventually became the name of the brand of thinking he did, as well as his magnum opus in two volumes. That’s where he defines his new geometry. American literature inherited a new landmark, extending its Transcendentalist lineage.
By the 1970s, Fuller had trodden well known paths in Western Civilization in finding the polyhedrons important, in some dynamic set of stories involving architecture and engineering, crystallography and biology.
He respected the great Euclidean geometer H.S.M. Coxeter (University of Toronto) and dedicated Synergetics thereto (with permission).
Polyhedrons have their spherical counterparts, oft generating as great circle spin networks. The Dymaxion House idea would later turn into the dome (some fraction of the total sphere). Fuller’s stint as a faculty member at Black Mountain College, marks the changeover. That’s when he first met Kenneth Snelson, the great tensegrity artist.
I think classifying R. Buckminster Fuller as a philosopher-poet is something of a no-brainer given the signature quality of polyhedrons in Western thought.
The biggest names in the Greek pantheon may be attached to geometric concepts: of course starting with Euclid; but then remember the Platonic and Archimedean solids; and Aristotle’s famous claim that tetrahedrons fill space (the Mite does) — all evidence that philosophy and polyhedrons go way back.
The Pyramids of Egypt are what if not polyhedrons?
Classifying Erhard the same way, as a philosopher, is not difficult either, given how est was spun as a kind of philosophy lecture designed to bring up existential stuff, life and death issues.
We don’t blame est for diving in to such content, as that’s what people were paying to face and examine, they hoped in a safe enough space, meaning in the company of many others, also witnesses to whatever was going on (the program took several days to work through, and sometimes took root as an ongoing process).
So why this long detour into who might be contemporary philosophers of interest? I’m underlining how I’m coming from PATH and getting into some mathematics (considered STEM) from that angle.
PATH = Philosophy, Anthropology, Theater, History (in my reading) whereas STEM is the better known Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
We’re reminded of the Trivium / Quadrivium distinction, not that these are equivalent, just that we’ve inherited a tendency to slice a whole curriculum into two parts.
During my Reed College hosted prototypes of the Martian Math course, under the auspices of Saturday Academy (a Portland, Oregon based educational NGO), I started converging mathematical content with science fiction.
In particular I’d focus on the famous October 30, 1938 reading, over the radio (a relatively new form of livingry back then), by Orson Welles, of the H.G. Wells science fiction novel War of the Worlds.
Orson did bracket the presentation as coming from between book covers, but readers just tuning in, bored with another channel, could easily miss all that context. The radio reports, complete with sound effects, caused something of a panic. Anthropologists have studied the event ever since.
Start with Wikipedia maybe, if wanting to learn more?
What I wanted to underline about that Orson Welles story is many listeners heard it as unfolding reality, not as fiction. Likewise in reading (versus listening to radio): a story may come across as a factual report about actual states of affairs in the world.
Or is it fiction, clearly set in an imaginary world?
Or maybe the story wavers in between fact and fiction, as in a courtroom, where the judge and jury are after the truth (in theory), while witnesses, plaintiffs, the defendants, my have motives and agendas other than shedding light on what actually happened.
Some witnesses may be deluded.
Lets take it out of the courtroom and get back to American Literature as covering a spectrum, with extreme fiction on the one hand, and extremely not fiction on the other.
In between, we’ll find a lot of speculation.
As Wittgenstein pointed out, in Logico Tractatus Philosophicus (required reading in my field), we’ll also run up against the limits of what might be said, in the sense of “sensically” i.e. nonsense is just over the line.
Clearly I’ve entered into the realm of the crime novel, the detective story, and, at a grander level, the coverup and conspiracy story. Sherlock Holmes as a character is typecast as going after individual criminals.
As readers, we’re always fishing for a sense of some truth, and how far might it be beneath the surface?
Are we reading pure fiction, or something closer to fact?
The truth of the matter, is it’s not always so easy to tell, which is which. And that brings us back to Orson Welles and the role of science fiction in our culture more generally.
The Paul Allen Museum of Science Fiction in Seattle lays out the thesis, hard to disagree with, that a primary purpose of the “scifi” genre is to mirror possible futures.
Indeed, Black Mirror, the TV show, is almost universally circled as a source of fascination by the Princeton applicants I sometimes interview. Young people wondering what the future might bring, gravitate to science fiction (I did) and wonder what, within those stories, has the greatest potential to actually materialize. What’s real already?
I ask these existential questions (about what really exists or might exist) as a segue to the whole ramified UFO and ET domain, clearly where Martian Math was already coming from.
Where to draw the line, between science fiction and science fact, is a part of the genre itself.
Clearly, the reason so many radio listeners panicked that night is because ETs are quite believable even by the standards of ordinary science.
An attack by leprechauns or fairies, in contrast, simply couldn’t have spiked the fear meter to that degree. Not among 1900s city audiences at least.
But ETs are in that twilight zone of tantalizingly relevant to “consensus reality” (CR), as Process Work Institute founder Arnold Mindell (Quantum Mind) calls it.
Lets set two flavors of science fiction side by side.
On the one hand, we have dark and dystopian views of the future in some of the Japanese manga and anime, echoing themes found in William Gibson.
On the other, we get both near and far term positive futurism, typified by Star Trek in the case of the latter.
True, there’s nothing all that utopian about the Borg cube, but the Earthling humans at least had stopped trying to visit disaster upon one another. The planet’s dominant species had stopped being so sociopathically psychotic.
Readers liked that feature (remember that juror who came to trial in a Star Trek uniform and had to be dismissed?) and wondered how we might go in that direction even in the near term.
The Club of Rome was suggesting in the 1970s that we might already be past our prime, despite recent breakthroughs in agriculture and engineering.
Fuller pops up as one of the strongest painters of near term futures designed to be alluring. He used Einstein as his own authority a lot, the philosopher (versus geometer) he most looked up to. “According to Einstein” Bucky would say, “we’re driven by basically two emotions: fear and longing”. Fuller tried to show us attainable near futures we could realistically long for. “Accentuate the positive” was his motto, mimicking the popular song.
Martian Math, in venturing into the realm of science fiction, including the UFO literature, speculative prehistory, alternative universe stories, is deliberately foregrounding the philosophical issue of “what is real?” and affirming (cite judge and jury trial) that ferreting out the truth may not be easy, given the amount of stage magic (sleight of hand) that goes on, when people are trying to cover their um, bases.
Think of Martian Math as good training for people going into Cleanup as a profession. You’ll expect people to mislead you about how much waste, of what type, is where. You’ll encounter coverups, and fake news.
Edgar Allan Poe should be mentioned at this point. His stories contain puzzles, decipherable secrets, what software engineers sometimes call ‘Easter eggs’. In Python, try “import antigravity” sometime (and watch your browser).
With Fuller we go back to The Pound Era, which takes us to propaganda and intellectuals competing to develop effective skills with the new media. Look what happened to Pound himself, caught sympathizing with the Italians. Fuller went over there and cheered him up a bunch.
We have Fuller down with an Elliot Norton chair (of poetry) at Harvard. He starts off Critical Path with mention of e. e. cummings.
Clearly we’re on the PATH side of the fence, and Synergetics hatches a geometry (lays its egg) on this side, in prose (with some pictures).
Humanitarians and humanists take to the domes at first. Whole Earth Catalog types. Architects and engineers follow suit. Domes pop up everywhere.
The Erhard stuff continues a lineage as well, taken up by other writers, especially when it comes to processes that handle lots of people simultaneously.
There’s still serialization, with one person after a next taking a microphone and getting acknowledgment. However the process is closer to group therapy than anything one-on-one.
Those one-on-one interviews (therapy sessions?) might come at another time of course, just that the training and seminar formats were both tailored for groups, which helps account for the high volume.
The Landmark Forum, inheriting from est, is still going on to this day. I’ve attended several graduations by friends, from those programs. I’m curious about doing a Forum in Farsi (these exist) even though that’s a language I don’t know.
One can’t get at all deeply into the UFO stuff before people want to know where the brave people in the military come in, and what about the intelligence agencies and so on and so forth. Once again, we’re free to treat spy stories as a genre, akin to and overlapping what’s more conventionally classified as science fiction. These are not mutually exclusive categories.
Finally, Martian Math, in self consciously bringing up all these issues, of real versus imaginary, of fact versus fiction, of coverups and deception, strives to tune in a new paradigm in the process. Why not mirror math itself, with a kind of alt math? That’s what Synergetics did.
The flavor of positive near term storytelling (investment banking) gains a lot from Synergetics containing its own geometry. With such a seed, what might we grow?
The sense that we have a lot in the balance and that it could still go either way, for humans and fellow travelers aboard Spaceship Earth, leads to a wish to keep it real.
American Literature 101 includes Pragmatism. Simply classifying and mapping a set of influences, a directed graph, is not enough. We want to apply what we’re learning, as a set of skills. That’s a pragmatic attitude.
Have we become better at distinguishing fact from fiction, sense from nonsense? How would we measure the change? What authors address these questions.
We’re on a roll. Stay tuned.