Anyone today who thinks that scientists are the unacknowledged legislators of the world has been influenced by Brockman’s taste. ~ Andrew Brown, the Guardian, 2005
[O]ne name has stood out as Epstein’s intellectual enabler: John Brockman, the New York literary agent who ran Edge, billed as an elite salon of thinkers “redefining who and what we are.” ~ Peter Aldhouse, Buzzfeed, 2019
This article is the follow-up to the recent one on Jeffrey Epstein and the Scientainment Industry. It is not meant to make the case for John Brockman as a lifetime actor and shadowy agent of cultural engineering, only to provide the evidence for such a case, should anyone wish to make it.
From “John Brockman,” by Jacqueline Marcus, Dazed, 8 July 2012:
Since the mid-60s, whether promoting pop culture happenings, Dada revolutionaries or the leading science writers of the day, John Brockman has been in the vanguard of intellectual fashion. . . . Perhaps no one has so completely embodied Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 proclamation that “the medium is the message” as renegade cultural impresario John Brockman. A gonzo epistemologist and marketing genius, Brockman’s a hustler, a behind-the-scenes wheeler-dealer calling the shots amongst America’s cultural and scientific vanguard. He was the only regular in Warhol’s Factory scene with an Ivy League business degree, and in the late 60s would flit between management consultant gigs at the White House and Pentagon and long afternoons kicking it with Black Panther leader Huey Newton in California.
Brockman was born in 1941 to immigrants of Polish-Jewish descent in a poor Irish Catholic enclave of Boston, Massachusetts. “Though a substandard student, he learned crucial lessons about markets, money and clients through his father, a wholesale florist. . . . This early education was seminal in forming his future take-no-prisoners approach as a book agent. Brockman got an MBA from Columbia University at 22.” After a brief stint in the army, he was back to New York in 1964.
“I went to St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, which is this famous Mecca of avant-garde on 10th St, and they had a programme called Theatre Genesis.” An anarchist Off-Off-Broadway group in the heart of the East Village, Brockman worked here setting up performances, stacking chairs in a three-piece suit with Charles Mingus Jr. and future Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Sam Shepard. He headed the theatre’s new film programme, and at a watershed moment in cinema when underground movies were just starting to take off Brockman positioned himself as the smart and sober business mind directing an arts scene fueled by a post-Beat cocktail of drugs and bravado.”
On arriving in New York at age 23, after receiving my army discharge, I set up a financial leasing company by day, but by night I went downtown to the avant-garde Theatre Genesis where I volunteered to help set up the theatre.
I had the unique opportunity to work closely with the video artist Nam June Paik, with the painter/sculptors Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg. I got to meet Miró, Chagall, Man Ray during this period. The following year, while working at the Lincoln Center for the New York Film Festival, I went to a dorm room at NYU to screen a movie by Martin Scorsese, a 19-year-old student film-maker. This led to his first public screening at the Festival, the same program that included visiting film-makers Jean-Luc Godard, Federico Fellini, and Milos Forman.
Dada, Fluxus, Theater of Cruelty
Brockman quoted in “John Brockman, Founder of Edge,” by Tobias Everke:
I learnt something when I was 25. I was sitting in a room with John Cage and six young artists. It was at the home of [neo-dadaist] Dick Higgins—who was a co-founder of the Fluxus art movement which was after Dada, and Yoko Ono was part of it, a very minor part of it, it was a bunch of European and American artists. And Cage wanted to meet young people to try ideas out, so we would go once a week and he would cook his mushroom recipes and throw out ideas. And always everyone who was in that room emerged. At the same time I was at the founding meeting of the Yippies which was, you know, Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin, a revolutionary group. They threw me out after 4 meetings. But the point is that all the artists were reading science: Cage handed me by Cybernetics by Norbert Weiner, Rauschenberg was reading physics… ‘
Lithuanian-born George Maciunas was the founding member and the central coordinator of Fluxus, and he was primarily influenced by John Cage‘s Experimental Music Composition classes at the (Fabian) New School for Social Research. He saw it as an attempt to “fuse . . . cultural, social, & political revolutionaries into [a] united front and action” (Fluxus Manifesto, 1963, by George Maciunas). Maciunas hooked up with a group of avant-garde artists and musicians in New York, centered around Cage and La Monte Young. He opened a short-lived art gallery on Madison Avenue which showcased work by Higgins, Yoko Ono and Jonas Mekas. Soon after in late 1961, Maciunas moved to Wiesbaden, West Germany, to work as a graphic designer with the US Air Force.
Fluxus became known for experimental contributions to different artistic media and disciplines and for generating new art forms, including intermedia, a term coined by Dick Higgins. Higgins had heard the John Cage Twenty-five-year Retrospective Concert in May 1958, and began studying with him that summer. He founded Something Else Press in 1963, which published texts by Gertrude Stein, Bern Porter, Marshall McLuhan, Cage, Merce Cunningham, Cage’s teacher Henry Cowell, as well as leading Fluxus members. The Something Else Press series of “Great Bear Pamphlets” documented the earliest Fluxus performances.
Central to the Fluxus aesthetic was the power of shock. Fluxus artists believed that shock not only made viewers question their own reasoning, but was a means to awaken them and transfer them into another state of consciousness. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s (their most active period) they staged “action” events and engaged in politics and public speaking. According to “The Artistic Influence of Abramović: The Grandmother of Performance Art,” Marina Abramović cites Marcel Duchamp and Dada, as well as the Fluxus movement, as being immensely influential on her work. Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964) and Abramović’s Rhythm 0 (1974) “emphasize a shared interest in the use of their own bodies as victims to chance to enforce active instead of passive viewership.”
Fluxus was similar in spirit to Dada, another “anti-art” movement. The parallels between Ono’s and Abramović’s self-victimizing as performance art and Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty are readily apparent, and both make the idea of audience participation central, straining backwards towards the prehistoric “art” of ritual sacrifice.
USCO, Gerd Stern, Stewart Brand, & Psychedelic Theater
After “a chance encounter with avant-garde filmmaker Jonas Mekas in Central Park,” Brockman landed a gig managing performances at Mekas’s Cinematheque, connecting him to Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg. Brockman met Whole Earth Catalog publisher Stewart Brand in 1965, after booking USCO, an anonymous media art collective that set up a “Psychedelic Tabernacle” in an abandoned airplane hangar outside of Manhattan. Susan Sontag saw one of their first multimedia performances (produced by Brockman) and spread the word.
“As a result, this thing just took off like an oil gusher. Globally in the press it became known as the Expanded Cinema Festival, it was just crazy,” says Brockman. He started having weekly mushroom dinners with John Cage, who gave him a copy of Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics, a book that forever informed his intellectual sensibilities.
The founder of USCO was Gerd Stern, associate of the Beats. Stern went to Harvard University—where they used USCO equipment to begin their own company in cooperation with a group from Harvard Business School. Stern and Callahan co-founded Intermedia Systems Corporation in 1969, the year the company handled some management and administrative details for the Woodstock festival. Stern was blamed for losing a 16,000-word typewritten letter by Neal Cassady that inspired Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (it was found and auctioned by Christies for $500,000 in 2016).
Stewart Brand was considered an honorary member of USCO. He played a major role in connecting countercultural networks with groups of researchers in the developing cyberculture. Living not too far from the Hitchcock Estate in Millbrook, New York, they were invited to visit the communal Millbrook group and became involved with Timothy Leary, Richard Alpert, and Ralph Metzner. (See “LSD: ‘The Contact High’,” by Howard Junker, The Nation, July 5, 1965.) The USCO group collaborated with artists, engineers, poets, and filmmakers. Influenced by media theorist Marshall McLuhan, USCO used stroboscopes, oscilloscopes, projectors, closed-circuit television, computerized control systems, and audiotapes in their “multi-channel media mix” performances. USCO used the phrase “We are all one.” (Gerd Stern, From Beat Scene Poet to Psychedelic Multimedia Artist in San Francisco and Beyond, 1948-1978).
In 1965, USCO collaborated with Leary and Alpert’s Castalia Foundation, a precursor to the League for Spiritual Discovery, to reproduce the LSD experience in an “audio-olfactory-visual alteration of consciousness” psychedelic art event in New York City. During one part of the event, while Leary lectured about psychedelics, USCO played a recording of Antonin Artaud screaming. A 1965 review of the show for The Nation by Howard Junker described USCO’s event as an attempt “to stimulate multiple levels of consciousness by audio-visual bombardment.”
Filmmaker Jonas Mekas presented the New Cinema Festival 1 (later referred to as the Expanded Film Festival), at the Filmmakers Cinematheque in New York City. John Brockman was Program Manager. The series featured USCO collaborations with Carolee Schneemann, Don Snyder, Jackie Cassen, and Rudi Stern. According to Gerd Stern, USCO was asked to participate because “they thought that our multimedia performances were kind of simulations of psychedelic experiences.” (Stern, p. 84)
According to Stanford libraries, Gerd Stern worked at public radio station KPFA and was close to founder Lew Hill; he met anthropologist/storyteller Jaime de Angulo in Big Sur on his first trip West and was an early champion of his work. According to Berkeley Daily Planet, De Angulo has been called the “uncredited source” of Casteneda’s books:
Jaime De Angulo . . . studied and lived with many California tribes during the 1920s-30s, associated for a while with the UC Anthropological Department during its glory days. . . . Pound, among others, considered ‘‘The Lariat,” inspired by Mission era diaries in the Bancroft, Jaime’s masterpiece. Shortly before his death in 1950, he read . . . legendary California Native American stories, ‘‘Indian Tales,’ on KPFA, which still offers recordings of it for sale […] Ironically, his work’s now considered a major uncredited source for Carlos Castaneda’s popular Don Juan series of books.
As Andrew Brown at The Guardian put it, “In 1967 Brockman discovered how to sell flower power while it was still fresh.”
Agents of Change: The Factory, Panthers, John Lily, & the Death of Man
From “The Hustler,” The Guardian, 30 Apr 2005:
Brockman devised a notorious advertising campaign for the Monkees’ cult flop Head that saw images of his face and the word “Head” plastered all over New York City. He put together distribution deals for Warhol’s films.
“It was obligatory to go by the Factory and see what was cooking,” Brockman recalls. He was there the time Bob Dylan dropped in, and mingled amongst the motley crew of heroin addicts, drag queens, and “a vividly beautiful [but] so spaced out” Edie Sedgwick. He was instrumental in getting Warhol’s films seen, convincing the sleazeballs on 42nd street to buy esoteric art flicks.
Brockman was attracted to their Dada-esque tactics to overthrow established authority, but felt the political posturing was “beneath what artists should be doing.” He parted ways with the Yippies but stayed connected to the radical left, regularly visiting his friend Huey Newton, chairman of the Black Panther Party, in Oakland, California. “I first met Huey through a Hollywood connection who was backing him and wanted me to meet him. He was absolutely brilliant.”
This is Realist editor Paul Krassner, member of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters and a founding member of the Yippies:
“Brockman represented my autobiography, and he fought for my literary rights as he does with all his authors. He has particularly nurtured the scientific and philosophical communities around the globe. He remains the personification of an agent of change.”
Brockman’s first book, By the Late John Brockman (1969), was influenced by John Cage, Marshall McLuhan and cybernetics. Though “despised by the traditional literary community, the book impressed philosopher Alan Watts and LSD expert John Lilly.” John C. Lilly, M.D., author of Programming and Meteprogramming in the Human Biocomputer said this:
My debt to John Brockman is great: he taught me the essential non-existence of the screen of words. By defining, with words, the non-existence of definitions, the experience without words becomes the highest value in the hierarchy. The injunctive use of words (as in a cookbook) pointing to experience yet to be had is the only worthwhile residuum of “filmiest of screens separating ordinary reality from the non-ordinary realities inside one’s inner spaces.”
By The Late John Brockman is a compilation of ideas collected, computed, rescreened, re-ordered, re-created in the biocomputer of John Brockman. Despite his argument that the screen of words is dead, he manipulates the screen in a unique living fishnet which captures important ideas in an American jnana yoga. There are flashes of cosmic humor, dispassionate critiques, important operations of the mind, and a super head trip.
Alan Watts, author of The Way of Zen, called it “The most important book since Wittgenstein’s Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus.” Mmm-hmm, OK. (Author Richard deMille considered Wittgenstein a primary, concealed source for Castaneda’s books.)
Thirty years later, Douglas Rushkoff, author of Media Virus, compared it to “a Dead Sea Scroll or long-vaulted Beatles outtake reel . . . destined to recontextualize the works of a century’s greatest thinkers. . . . a remarkably prescient topology of the landscape directly ahead [and] the navigational keys to the ever changing map of human consciousness.”
From the Brockman’s mouth:
The system can be comprehended only by killing off man. We are not destroying a phenomenon. We are replacing one system of abstraction with another system of abstraction. Man was nothing but a model, a technique. It is now necessary to construct a new model, to invoke a new system of abstraction, no more truthful than the old one, no closer to any ultimate answer. An abstraction is only an abstraction.
Man created a dehumanized, computerized world, a world in which he was nothing more than a number. But it was really the other way around: numbers representing neural patterns had somehow become humanized. From an unambiguous and objective representation of patterns of activity, the number became transformed into “man” and “not man.” This arbitrary object-subject separation assured ambiguity, vagueness, and illusion.
What Brockman’s Edge site says about it:
It is a small masterpiece of clear-thinking, a youthful outcry. Brockman was not even 30 at the time. The book is aggressive, curious and prophetic and strips away the humanism of the literary mind with a Ludwig-Wittgenstein-like toughness: ‘The concept of freedom,’ he writes, ‘is simply absurd.’ The book made him briefly known, then it was forgotten. It was too early, too radical, nobody wanted to say goodbye to humans, at least not in the literary milieu. And now with the book published in German for the first time as Afterwords, you realize that you recognize or understand some revolutions only in retrospect 30 or 40 years later.”
Lily and Watts and other leading lights in the “consciousness revolution” invited Brockman to the American University of Masters conference, where he “stumbled into becoming a book agent” by selling Lilly’s book idea, officially launching his literary agency Brockman, Inc. in 1973. As “The Hustler” put it:
He was talking about God to the scientist John Lilly, a friend of Brand’s, whose research into dolphins and LSD was one of the first tendrils of a scientific study of consciousness, and he realized Lilly had a book there. He sold the proposal and found a new business where his talents and his interests coincided.
The Reality Club & Third Culture: Pimp to the Stars
Within another decade, as if by natural progression:
In the early 80s Brockman declared himself the first software agent, shrewdly anticipating the future gold rush when the software market was still a lawless frontier. . . . He went to the Computer Dealers Exposition, found his first client, a word processing program, and sold it for $1 million. Brockman didn’t always play nice, and caught the ire of Bill Gates for poaching his authors. “Bill Gates is not a fan of mine,” he shrugs, “but that was the beginning of the personal computer revolution and I’ve been at the centre of it ever since.” He began throwing an annual Millionaires’ Dinner for titans in the business, attracting Google triumvirate Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, AOL chairman Steve Case, Bill Gates, and, later, Mark Zuckerberg. “In the beginning it was very consequential; there was heavy stuff going down, alliances coming and going about browsers. . . . Once people had their jets parked outside, it got upgraded to the Billionaires’ Dinner.” (Dazed)
In 1995, Brockman released a treatise called The Third Culture, calling for scientists to use empirical evidence to find deeper meaning into the human condition. He founded the Reality Club with physicist Heinz Pagels, calling it “an attempt to create an inter-disciplinary group of peers and people at the top of their game. You would get a chance to present your new ideas and be challenged in a constructive way.” (Dazed)
Heinz Pagels was a physicist and Executive Director of The New York Academy of Sciences, adjunct professor of physics at Rockefeller University, and president of the International League for Human Rights. He was the author of three books: The Cosmic Code (1982) Perfect Symmetry (1985), and Dreams of Reason: The Rise of the Sciences of Complexity (1988). He was also a founding member, and, at the time of his death, president of “The Reality Club.” (Edge)
After Pagels died, the Reality Club morphed in 1996 into online salon Edge.org, a place where “science and scientific methods are being brought into areas where no one ever thought it was possible, like morality, psychology, into decision making, into any aspect of your physical life.” (Dazed)
“The emergence of the Third Culture introduces new modes of intellectual discourse and reaffirms the pre-eminence of America in the realm of important ideas. Throughout history, intellectual life has been marked by the fact that only a small number of people have done the serious thinking for everybody else. What we are witnessing is a passing of the torch from one group of thinkers, the traditional literary intellectuals, to a new group, the intellectuals of the emerging Third Culture. Intellectuals are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesiser, a publicist, a communicator.”
Brockman’s scientist-writer-clients went on to include: Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel C. Dennett, Jared Diamond, Daniel Kahneman, David Gelernter, Brian Greene, Marc Hauser, Alan Guth, Jordan Pollack, Jaron Lanier, Lee Smolin, Sir Martin Rees, Craig Venter (the genome researcher who succeeded in creating a synthetic cell), Sir John Maddox, Chris Anderson, WIRED’s editor in chief, and Rupert Sheldrake.
From “The Hustler:”
It all reinforces his idea that reality is essentially social. Even the name, the Reality Club, goes right back to his earliest big idea: that reality is what the smart people, who should be friends of John Brockman, decide to make of the world: “It’s an argument that I have with all my scientist friends, and I lose it every time. They don’t buy it at all. It’s very primitivistic, I’m told, or even solipsism, but it works for me.”
In 1999, at the height of the pop science boom, he sold the world rights to a book by the theoretical physicist Brian Greene for $2 million, “as well as three Nobel prize winners and almost all the other famous popular scientists.”
Brockman also sold
The Bible Code by Michael Drosnin, which claimed that everything significant in the world up to the death of Princess Diana could have been predicted by reading every seventh letter in the Hebrew Bible, and the novel The Diary of a Manhattan Call Girl by Tracy Quan (member of Edge), the first account of a prostitute’s life to be serialized on the Internet.
He was caught plagiarizing an article by James Gleick, author of Chaos, in Einstein, Gertrude Stein, Wittgenstein and Frankenstein, which had to be hurriedly withdrawn. Chaos was one of the first big pop science hits and Gleick was not one of Brockman’s clients. “Brockman blamed one of his assistants.” (“The Hustler”)
“It’s so easy to think the guy’s just a high-class pimp that it’s quite easy to ignore the impact on the intellectual culture of the west that John has enabled by getting his artist and scientist friends out to the world.” ~ Stewart Brand
Not that it’s either-or.
Digerati: the Cyber-Elite & the Neoliberal Avant-Garde
Das Netz (The Net) is a 2003 independent film directed by Lutz Dammbeck and subtitled The Unabomber, LSD and the Internet. From “Filming the World Laboratory: Cybernetic History in Das Netz,” Continental drift, 2008:
The film explores the ideas and histories of groundbreaking artists Marshall McLuhan and Nam June Paik, hippie idealists such as Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, counterculturalists such as John Brockman and Stewart Brand, cyberneticists such as Robert William Taylor and Heinz von Foerster, and neo-luddite Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. Brockman sees technology as a fundamentally artistic or artificializing force. His reminiscences take us through a world of circuit diagrams, mainframe computers, avant-garde cinematographers and cybernetic theorists. He quotes the biologist J.Z. Young: “We create tools and then we mold ourselves in the use of them.” This is a doctrine of radical constructivism. But when Dammbeck asks Brockman about the Unabomber—who mailed a letter-bomb to David Gelernter, a member of the Digerati network—the businessman suddenly freezes up, cutting short the conversation and leaving the room. Such a brusque reaction only sparks the narrator’s curiosity. What might lie behind Brockman’s refusal to even speak about Ted Kaczynski? And why would anyone want to attack the Digerati?
See here: https://youtu.be/GY6fb59XFbQ?t=640
For some clues as to one posible sanswer, this is from “A Counter-History of the California Ideology,” by Edmund Berger, Deterritorial Investigations, April 30, 2013:
Like so many other wrapped up in the zeitgeist, [Stewart] Brand was fascinated by cybernetics. He had devoured the works of Wiener and others, in particular, the experimental ecology being forged by [OSS agent Gregory] Bateson [who according to Acid Dreams received LSD from a doctor on the payroll of the CIA’s MK-ULTRA program]. Brand’s own vision of environmentally sustainable, bottom-up communities where individuals could live in touch with one another and the earth they traversed was clearly rooted in a spiritual-spin on systems theory, and Bateson’s work “spoke to the ‘clear conceptual bonding of the cybernetic whole-systems thinking with religious whole-systems thinking.”15 The two quickly became friends, with the anthropological philosopher’s influence peppering the pages of Brand’s newly-formed Whole Earth Catalog.
The Whole Earth Catalog had been launched in 1968, the same year of the Mother of All Demos. With the subtitle “access to tools,” Brand used the magazine to attempt to ‘liberate technology,’ in a way, in order to fuse its advancements with the countercultural desire for creative, sustainable, do-it-yourself living. Inside each issue were seven sections, including one on ecological cybernetics titled “Understanding Whole Systems,” and others on “Communication,” “Nomadics,” “Industry and Craft,” and “Shelter and Land Use.” These sections were complimented with advertisements for various tools and books to use them, conversations on different forms of living shelter and the environments that they could be utilized in, schematics, and the prices and suppliers for the items.
Thus, Brand’s communalism was countercultural in the sense that it stressed individual liberty and that it promoted ways to effectively “drop-out” of the greater system and build up alternative; at the same time, The Whole Earth Catalog was still market based, though in many ways it reflects Manuel deLanda’s later division between markets-as-meshworks and antimarkets (corporations and states). Years and years later, Steve Jobs would discuss the intricate layout of the catalog as a forerunner to the creative uses of Google search engines… but in 1968, Brand was busy networking his communal idealism with the researchers being carried out by Engelbart and his colleagues at SRI. The symmetry was clear, as Turner points out: “The Whole Earth Catalog… would ultimately embody many of the ARC group’s [Engelbart’s unit at SRI] assumptions about the ideal relationship between information, technology, and community… the Catalog would link multiple, geographically distributed groups and allow them to collaborate – albeit not in real time. And like the hyperlinked texts of Engelbart’s system, the Whole Earth Catalog presented its readers with a system of connections.” . . . .
In 1996, John Brockman looked back at this time in his work Digerati: Encounters with the Cyber Elite.18 He bundled together the individuals of WELL, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Wired with techno-entrepreneurs like Gates, Jobs, and Wozniak; beyond being electronic visionaries, they were also manifestations of the “New Economy,” where free markets gained a new sense of urgency with the global proliferation of information processing technology. Wired‘s own “Encyclopedia of the New Economy” elaborates on this, revealing that at its core their approach is no different than that of post-Fordist neoliberalism at large.
11 thoughts on “John Brockman: Eminence Grise for a Globally Dominant Counterculture”
A continual spiral, with a basis in warped physics (quantum relativity) morphed into warped social theory (Post-Modernism; Derirda/Focault etc), with a sprinkle of old Crowley. Confusing objective reality with subjective opinion. Most handedly done via mind altering delights. Others continuing the helter skelter perhaps? https://youtu.be/tV8PSevhd_M https://youtu.be/0uKNVVVdqrI
Thanks for your stuff Jaybo. Perhaps the only authentic one left on the intrawbes.
Thank you for this Jasun
Brockman’s early adventures date back to 1964, the height of the “Mad Men” era, one of the last years in the US before the civil rights breakthroughs and vast cultural changes. Brockman, newly released from the military and hitting the NYC art scene, must have surveyed the cultural landscape in ’64 and took note of the “rules” of social interactions and careering, but then to his chagrin, in a few short years the rules started changing rapidly. It seems like personalities like Brockman, Epstein, Trump, Dershowitz, etc. are still desperately yearning for those pre-’68/69 glory days when gender-power roles were much simpler, men were scientists and power brokers and women were models and cheerleaders. Aside from Tracy Quan, all the personalities mentioned in this research are men. Busy men with successful lives who probably have everything they need and desire except for no-strings attached ‘fun’ sexual encounters. I can see why Brockman embraced the “cyberfashion guru” moniker and schtick, the fashion/modeling world might be the only realm where its acceptable to focus on women’s physical attributes while ignoring their other qualities. Epstein’s ties to Les Wexner and Victoria’s Secret is another example of this. Smart people usually want people to tell them they’re sexy, and sexy people want others to tell them they’re smart. Pairing successful intellectuals with successful models is like pairing peanut butter with jelly. Stewart Brand’s quote regarding the tremendous impact Brockman has had on the intellectual culture of the West seems wildly overblown. Its easy to see these guys, Brockman and Epstein as high-class pimps, because thats precisely what they are/were.
I am baffled that anyone can read the evidence of this article & see that claim as overblown – tho admittedly Brockman may be more an effect than a causal agent, since the strings that move him are invisible. Still, his trajectory reveals the directed emergence of a trend; Brockman & his ilk are manufacturers of a zeitgeist
I do see how Brockman was contributing to a zeitgeist. I didn’t mean to undermine your great research here. I mean, Watts, Krassner, Lilly, Warhol, Dylan, Huey Newton! Brockman’s contributions and connections are undeniable, one hip cat missing is Terrence McKenna, but I bet he had lunch with Brockman at least once. The art poster from the Monkees film is groovy, I wish I had one of those. Thanks for including it. I’m thinking here of Charles Manson, another person who became active around the same time as Brockman. Manson scholars often discuss the myriad ‘zetigeist-y’ elements of Manson, while glossing over the simple but uncomfortable pimping aspect of Manson’s modus operandi. When Manson (almost) started publishing music with Brian Wilson, he was poised to fulfill Brockman’s definition of an ‘intellectual’- “a synthesist, a publisher, a communicator”. But would Brian have been as indulgent with Charlie if not for all the girls helping to prime the pump?
Please note how many instigators of the counter-culture were of the chosen ethnicity. It might not be that far off the mark to describe the counter-culture as a tribal conspiracy to break down WASP culture, following the “ordo ab chao” principle of destroying an existing order and offering a new one. Unfortunately, we are now living in the dystopian new order built by these sophisticated vandals upon the ruins of our forefathers’ culture.
José Ortega y Gasset – The Revolt of the Masses. Significant book, weaponised perhaps by the thinkers that Jaysun and others identify in the culture shaping game. Foundational read.
As someone who has read a few of John Brockmans Edge.org books where his “question” is addressed by intellectuals he prefers to give voice to, this statement very well reflects the overall disembodied ontology and epistemology that his philosophy seeks to promote:
“My debt to John Brockman is great: he taught me the essential non-existence of the screen of words. By defining, with words, the non-existence of definitions, the experience without words becomes the highest value in the hierarchy.”
Brockman has published and continues to publish books (probably 20 or more) where he defines the frame – by asking a question – to which he selects answers from intellectuals that he personally cultivates. What’s important here is the role questions play in setting up a perspective or frame on an otherwise epistemologically broad spectrum which has its logical beginnings in animal affectivity. What’s distinctive – and what always turns me off from these sorts of books, despite having read three or four of them – is that these ‘answers’ always seem to a hallow, morally shallow, and intellectually unmoored automaton that acts on the body just like the “biocomputer of John Brockman”. All these people – or most of them (Smolin, Kauffman, and a few other people given run by Brockman always offer an opposing view from the mainstream one he promotes that gives greater place to affect and relationality – even if their description of affect lacks the sophistication of relational psychoanalysis) pursue arguments that have just this background assumption in mind: that they are ‘superordinate minds’ acting upon the “hardware” of the body. The philosopher David Chalmers, the psychologist Steven Pinker, the philosopher Daniel Dennett, or the philosopher Patricia Churchland, all pursue variants of this idea: an observing mind that is uncontaminated by the feeling body – and certainly, none of them give much attention or care to the way intersubjective processes penetrate our motivational dynamics at nearly every instance that we exist; or that our highest cognitive processes are metaphorically tethered to these lower level processes.
What’s profound is how the far left, shock art, postmodernism, “spiritual AI”, a disembodied cybernetics and the new atheism all seem to converge upon the same freaking guy – John Brockman. I’ve always thought that these currents we’re all united in a similar philosophical presumption, namely, nominalism, or the denial that language has any formative or constituting role in the structure of the real – but to see the same guy, who, by his appearance alone already comes off as nefarious looking, pushing all these different currents, it becomes clear that is the overall objective: the world falls apart when language no longer serves as the linkage between minds. When minds no longer realize the constituting role of language, or when they relate to the words they utter as somehow different from the shape of our bodies, or the interactions of our bodies with the world, then the mind can say something that is different from what it does, and it can act as if nothing ontologically harmful has occurred. There is a genetic code between us as much as there is a genetic code regulating the protein structure of a cell and body. The analogy is basically the following: metabolism flows through a physical set of constraints that find their essential contours “crystallized” in the sequence of nucleic acids; these nucleic acids in turn hold in place the physical set of constraints that create the structure of the cell. Correspondingly, humans affect one another – affect and metabolism being synonymous – and like nucleic acids, language ‘crystallizes’ the flow of meaning that moves through us and between us. To pervert language and to render its significance invisible is what John Brockman has apparently succeeded incredibly at in his role as a literary agent.
I once alluded to this in a passage from Umberto Eco Foucaults Pendulum, where Eco himself was using the character of a kabbalistically inclined Jew to eventually chasten the main character of the novel into realizing the mistakes of their actions when they tried to ‘play around with creation’:
“So we attempted to do what was not allowed us, what we were not prepared for. Manipulating the words of the Book, we attempted to construct a golem.” “I don’t understand….” “You can’t understand. You’re the prisoner of what you created. But your story in the outside world is still unfolding. I don’t know how, but you can still escape it. For me, it’s different. I am experiencing in my body everything we did, as a joke, in the Plan.” “Don’t talk nonsense. It’s a matter of cells….” “And what are cells? For months, like devout rabbis, we uttered different combinations of the letters of the Book. GCC, CGC, GCG, CGG. What our lips said, our cells learned. What did my cells do? They invented a different Plan, and now they are proceeding on their own, creating a history, a unique, private history. My cells have learned that you can blaspheme by anagrammatizing the Book, and all the books of the world. And they have learned to do this now with my body. They invert, transpose, alternate, transform themselves into cells unheard of, new cells without meaning, or with meaning contrary to the right meaning. There must be a right meaning and a wrong meaning; otherwise you die. My cells joke, without faith, blindly.” – Umberto Eco, Foucaults Pendulum, pg. 566, Harcourt, 1988
You’re a prisoner of your linguistic referents – of the cultures you subscribe to and the world that this language constraints into your epistemological focus. How can you know when the determinants of your knowing is the language that constructs you? How can a cell metabolize lactose if it only has the genes for galactose and glucose turned on? It takes suffering and stress for the cell to relearn what works.
Eco, however elusive a writer he could be – just look at his last book, “Chronicles of a Liquid Society, or its Italian Title, “papa, satan, aleppe” – was too educated in the systems sciences and in semiotics especially in Peircean semiotics not to realize the accuracy of the Jewish emphasis on semiosis in its writings, which is why his books was all about naming and representational accuracy, as in, for instance, “the name of the Rose”.
In the book he addresses precisely the issues of the role Judaism and Kabbalah have had on the intellectuals of the western world, seemingly ‘overwhelming’ the latter group with a sense that, to quote the same book, “And bang, the cabalistic tradition begins: a heroic attempt of the dispersed, the outsiders to show up the masters, the ones in power, by claiming to know all.” “But, doing that, they give the Christians the impression that they really do know.” – Umberto Eco, Foucaults Pendulum, pg. 526-527, Harcourt, 1988
Eco is on the fence about them knowing all; but the point is, its impressive enough of an intellectual edifice that it can actually make a person think just that.
“If you alter the Book, you alter the world; if you alter the world, you alter the body. This is what we didn’t understand.” – Umberto Eco, Foucaults Pendulum, pg. 566, Harcourt, 1988
And all in all, we see the role of Egyptian and Babylonian metaphysics, via Pythagoreanism, in this ontological assertion of Brockmans:
“Man created a dehumanized, computerized world, a world in which he was nothing more than a number. But it was really the other way around: numbers representing neural patterns had somehow become humanized. From an unambiguous and objective representation of patterns of activity, the number became transformed into “man” and “not man.” This arbitrary object-subject separation assured ambiguity, vagueness, and illusion. ”
That is, number – which is ancillary to the human being and an invention of his cultural activity – is taken as a priori, as having pre-existed the human being and therefore, the human being is actually the creation of number.
The metaphysics of worshipping mathematics is so deeply at the heart of the worship of power – or how those who worship power regulate themselves by their deep faith in the power of number to give humans power over the natural world (the real). They take this claim absolutely seriously, and yet the harmfulness of assuming the prior reality of number could not be any more obvious. In metaphysical terms, numbers and virtuality are expressions of the masculine principle, whereas the concrete patterns between material objects in the real are the expressions of the feminine principle.
* are taken to be expressions of the masculine vis-à-vis the patterns in the feminine.
Obviously, patterns precede numbers, and at no point is the human being ever able to achieve an epistemological vantage point that takes him outside the motivational dynamics created by socializing. In Game of the Thrones, we see Plato’s (who was a Pythagorean) ideal philosopher king depicted in the form of Bran – who is imagined to be outside the social fold simply because he has become dissociated from his lower self, as if that doesn’t amount to a devaluing of the meaning of an individual human life, since Bran himself is now a person who knows what it means to “no longer be a person”, it’ll be very easy for him to lose compassion for what it means to be a person to begin with.
This tendency to elect a single individual and place him at the top of the pyramid forgets the fundamentally social nature of the human being. All elites engage in this fantasy of believing to be ‘above good and evil’. There is no such thing. Its a dynamical impossibility.
Having stated my opinion of what Brockman’s work means to me, I should point out that there is an incredible amount of epistemological value to the approach of systems theory and cybernetics in determining what-causes-what. There is no form of knowing which has as much clout as systems/cybernetic approaches.
Some of the names you mention in this article therefore have been important influences on my thought, such as Gregory Bateson and Norbert Weiner, even if I disagree with them on many matters.
It should be pointed out (have you read him? Or do you only know of him?) that Bateson’s later on regretted his role in work with intelligence agencies, and spent a good chuck of the latter part of his life trying to correct the problems that western civilization was steering the world towards.