Blog Post

Access to what?: Buckminster Fuller, the Whole Earth Catalog and American Counterculture

The Center for Advanced Study has a new lecture series for the spring of 2010 called "Interpreting Technoscience: Explorations in Identity, Culture and Democracy" at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The kickoff lecture was "Designing for Democracy in the American Counterculture" by Stanford associate professor Ted Turner. A once business professor, Turner delivered a glossy and animated history of the counterculture movement in the late 1960's early 70's. He began his talk with an agenda, and a central focus that the counterculture movement offered insight into how "design has become a substitute for politics." Turner believes that the counterculture movement is two-fold, led by the formation of the New Left and what he calls the New Communalists. The New Left being individuals who pursued a broader social activism beyond traditional Marxist concerns about class-based oppression with a focus on demonstration and protest. Turner advocates that a secondary movement happened, the New Communalists, who put the interests of the community above the interests of the individual. The goal of these communes was to head back-to-the-land and the design of a new society.

Turner then focused on the external influences of these two movements: Buckminster Fuller's idea of Comprehensive Design and the Whole Earth Catalogue. Many of the New Communalists identified with Buckminster Fuller's idea of Comprehensive Design, which was to identify existing industrial resources and repurpose them for the usefulness of the everyday. In other words, converting the industrial and scientific technological tools of post-world war America into tools for living. Fuller's geodesic dome first flourished as a military shelter in the Cold War, later to be repurposed for the communes of the new radical youth.


Image: Buckminster Fuller, 1962.

Image: Drop City commune in Colorado, 1965.

An unlikely pairing occurred: Buckminster Fuller, a then 70-years-old-bow-tie-wearing-ex-WW1-vet, and the DIY-anarchist New Communalists. However, they both had one thing in common: the desire to do more with less. Many of the communes used recycled and scavenged materials to construct the complex geodesic dome structures and furnished them with items found in Stewart Brand's Whole Earth Catalog. As most know, the catalog is seen as a pre-cursor to the Internet, indexing various clothing, books, machines, and seeds as an "access to tools."

Turner's lecture begged the question: if these communes had dependable shelter and access to all of these technological tools, why did most, if not all, die out? If the design of these new communities and societies had the architectural genius of Fuller and the resources of the Whole Earth Catalog, where did they go wrong?

Turner gave a few answers to these questions, most dealing with the underlying, what he calls, design flaws of the New Communalists. First, the communities were overwhelmingly white and gendered. Second, that the technology used within these communities "strengthened the hands of those who are already culturally endowed." In other words, the New Communalists bought a bunch of stuff and then subsequently asked the technology to solve all the problems for them. The communities did find a way to quickly exit the society they stood against, however the tools they used to build this new society really only strengthened their demise. I believe that Turner's questioning of "design [as] a substitute for politics" really begs to ask how and why technology holds power as a fabrication resource.




I enjoyed Turner's talk and I was both puzzled and made curious by something he opened his presentation with. He said that in American society, design had replaced politics and that this was a very dangerous turn that had been made. He then went on to talk about this idea of comprehensive design you mention above, but what underscored it all for me was this enhanced emphasis, in the era and for the group he was speaking about, on autonomy and individualizaiton. What I mean is that in the narrative of the new communalists, political agency was arrived at by arming oneself with the skills and materials of the military-industrial elite. Importantly, the onus for doing this fell on the individual; freedom was in the hands of the individual. 

I think Turner's point here is one that has been brought up in different contexts and with different writers in different disciplines. Zygmunt Bauman refers to it as individualization (I think), Foucault called it governmentality, James Carey called it the fracturing of the great audience, and Margaret Thatcher suggested it to be the demise of society. What I think all these people are saying in different ways is that in the last 40 years (or whatever) there's been this shift away from the welfare state and towards the increased responsibilization and self-enterprise of the individual. One might even point to this as being a defining aspect of that beast we call neoliberalism. Turner's story about this group of hippies seems to go with this bigger narrative pretty well. And if you accept my claim that this process of individualization is an important if not defining component of neoliberalism, then it becomes apparent that the most problematic and seemingly paradoxical facet of neoliberal ideology (if we want to claim the existence of such a thing) is that it is only through the increased "freedom" achieved through individualization by which the political and economic mandates of neoliberalism (its techniques of power) are able to be enacted. That is, deregulation and privatization, the hallmarks of global neoliberalism, are only possible as the responsibility for the well being of the individual citizen gets shifted from the state and onto the shoulders of the citizen herself. I think in this way neoliberalism's power effects come into being as a function of the increased "freedom" (read responsibility, autonomy, agency, and enterprise) the citizen acquires through multiple strategies and techniques and that the most insidious aspect of neoliberal ideology is its ability to so smoothly conduct this ideological translation of control and domination into freedom. As Nikolas Rose puts it, the citizen of neoliberalism is governed by his "freedom"; in turn, it is this very freedom that puts us in a relationship of domination with the neoliberal state, although it so rarely appears that way as we continue to purchase goods and acquire skills that make us more autonomous, enterprising, and able to "control our own destinies".


Thanks so much for the engaging response. I am glad I was not alone when Turner brought design into the conversation. As an artist, his critque felt a bit general and at times, a low blow to the creative process. Yes, design does offer solutions. However, I think it's a bit overkill to claim that design will lead to the demise of a society.



Thanks for posting on this Jeff. I really wanted to attend Fred Turner's talk and sadly missed it, but this discussion here is helping me catch up.

These are the comments that I am interested in: "First, the communities were overwhelmingly white and gendered. Second, that the technology used within these communities "strengthened the hands of those who are already culturally endowed."

I recently read the book Charas:The Improbable Dome Builders about a group of Puerto Rican and African American New Yorkers–most living in public housing and some former gang members–who worked with Buckminster Fuller and his assistant to build a geodesic dome structure. The book talks about the building and design process, foregrounding Fuller's design's and technology. This book is a nice example that this culture was not just white people, and Fuller's technology is not the most interesting part of the book. The best part of the book is the way that CHARAS came together as a collective project building what they called The Real Great Society (TRGS). TRGS was modeled after LBJs Great Society initiative but a somewhat tongue in cheek response. TRGS folks wanted to have affordable housing for everyone they new in their New York community, identifying it as a key to overcoming poverty. They ran free schools in empty neighborhood store fronts and maintained a collective work space in a neighborhood building. Eventually the group became CHARAS and worked to build a dome in an abandoned lot. My point is the celebrated Fuller technology–the book's focus–is hardly as interesting as the collective organizing being done by the group. 

Another of my favorite projects from this time period, the VideoFreex. Now, the freaks totally fit Turner's profile, but they certainly did interesting things with their love of technology. As a group they were responding to the "Portapak revolution." The Sony Portapak being the first consumer video camera on the market. They recorded Women's liberation protest, Woodstock, interviews with Black Panther, Fred Hampton, and even Buckminster Fuller. Vertovian in their need to document as much as they could in their surrounding and changing culture, the group involved countercultural heros and the everyday public in their love for videotaping. They shared their obsession in their book the Spaghetti City Video Manual  and on the pirate television station they ran in upstate New York. The Videofreex broadcast their tapes as well as their own experimental television shows. The group eventually broke apart and a large part of their work is now housed at Chicago's Video Data Bank.  

I am not sure how the Freex contradict Turner's premise but I think they are one of the most innovative collective groups that relied on the socially transformative power of technology. The Freex did try to teach people the skills to maintain their own equipment. That is of course if you could obtain it in the first place. In fact a lot of what these groups did, was publish books to share and expand their ideas, and it is through these books that their ideas are still around today. Books like CHARAS and the Spaghetti City Video Manual, or Spiritual Midwifery, or the Journal of the New Alchemists.