Empowering People of Spaceship Earth
For a generation that came of age in the late 1960s and early ’70s, three unusual reference books were catalytic consciousness raisers. “The Joy of Sex” and “Our Bodies, Ourselves” are still in print; the third and possibly most influential of all is less familiar to people born after 1980: the Whole Earth Catalog. Brainchild of the visionary techno-hippie artist Steward Brand, this compendium of resources for the New Age is the subject of “Access to Tools: Publications From the Whole Earth Catalog, 1968–1974,” a modest but stirring time capsule of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.
The Whole Earth Catalog did for counterculture youth in the ’60s what the Sears Catalog did for children of the Great Depression and what Google does for people of the Internet age: provide a way for ordinary people to connect with and make use of the global economy. Against the dominion of capitalist profiteers and the top-down cult of technocratic expertise, it aimed to put practical, intellectual and spiritual means of self-determination into the hands of the people. A telephone-book size tome printed on cheap paper in black and white and in all kinds of typographies, and peppered with sharp, often funny commentary on its products by its editors — as well as essays, short stories by writers like Wendell Berry and letters from readers — the catalog was nothing if not user friendly.
An ad for it described it as “a traditional instrument no more radical than Sears Roebuck and Consumer Reports, merely attuned to a new market, the sub-economy of dope and rock.” Its pragmatic, good-humored utopianism struck a resounding chord. During its years of regular publication, from 1968 to 1974, more than 2.5 million copies were sold. In 1972 it won a National Book Award.
The catalog’s cover image, a photograph of the earth shot from outer space, summed up its messianic purpose. Viewed from a sufficiently expansive perspective, the world was not so confusingly fragmented and chaotic as it might seem to surface dwellers. “Spaceship Earth” — in the coinage of the catalog’s ideological godfather, Buckminster Fuller — was understood as a holistically integrated system with all living things enmeshed in an ever-fluctuating ecological equilibrium. Against the specializing, often exploitative focus of modern science and technology and the compartmentalization of academia, the catalog offered a mind-expanding, cross-disciplinary smorgasbord of ideas and self-actualizing technologies, from books by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin(德日进) and Carlos Castaneda(卡洛斯·卡斯塔尼达) to listings of companies selling bicycles, gardening equipment and dome-building kits. The postmodern, pluralist era owes a huge, insufficiently acknowledged debt to the Whole Earth Catalog.
David Senior, a bibliographer in the Museum of Modern Art library and organizer of the exhibition, observed that the tools most extensively proffered by the catalog were printed matter. So the materials displayed in Plexiglas-covered vitrines are books, pamphlets, newspapers, broadsides and other publications that either inspired the catalog’s editors or were produced under its influence. Included are books by the new-media guru Marshall McLuhan; architectural projects on paper by the British collective Archigram; the art collective Ant Farm’s “Inflatocookbook,” which provided instructions for inflatable dwellings; a book called “Guerrilla Television” (1971) produced by the Raindance Corporation; and a 1971 supplemental catalog update edited by the writers Paul Krassner and Ken Kesey, with a hilarious version of the Last Supper by R. Crumb(罗伯·克朗布) on its cover. Visitors may also peruse copies of the catalog at a biomorphically shaped table. Their pages are yellowed and brittle but they are still compulsively readable.
The Updated Last Whole Earth Catalog was published in May 1974 and sold for $5. Its 447 pages represented an amazing array of goods, services and information. The diversity was categorized into Land Use and Shelter, Industry, Craft, Community, Nomadics, Communications and Learning. And the opening salvo, Whole Systems, put it all into philosophical perspective. Besides the ideas of Fuller, it was informed by those of two now seldom-read theorists: the biologist D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson(达西·汤普森), whose “On Growth and Form” (1917) found similar formal patterns in all sorts of natural phenomena and human-made processes, and the mathematician Norbert Wiener, whose “Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine” (1948) understood events in the abstract terms of the new information theory underlying computer science. The lesson, now familiar to every Google user, was that all things great and small are nested within an infinitely expandable, multilevel and interconnected system of systems.
Wised up 21st-century folks may dismiss the Whole Earth Catalog as an artifact of a naïvely optimistic moment and a herald of the narcissism and consumerism of the ’70s and ’80s. Today’s art world and the broader creative culture to which it belongs are depressingly exclusive and factionalized. Academics steeped in the dour obscurities of European, neo-Marxist theory(新馬克思主義) view conventional object-makers as foolish collaborators with capitalism. Traditional painters and sculptors see avant-gardeist posturing and doctrinaire moralizing in high concept arts involving social intervention or institutional critique. Yet the studio artist can’t help but feel defensive about creating luxury décor for rich collectors. To be a player in art now it seems you have to take sides, stifle doubt and vilify the opposition.
So maybe the time is ripe for a deep and wide reconsideration of the Whole Earth vision. In its generous embrace of theory and practice and its range from the cosmic to the mundane it epitomized the best impulses of American democracy. It was and still might be a great tool for thinking about how to rehabilitate our sadly distressed world.