Flying Start turns up in the bins, the second album by the Blackbyrds, the group Donald Byrd assembled while the head of Howard University’s Department of Jazz Studies in the 1970s. Curious, I look up info on the department — the first of its kind, established in 1970 “to preserve and perpetuate jazz through instruction, performance, and research.” From there, I’m off reading about a Beatles song released in 1968 called “The Inner Light,” the lyrics of which, written by George Harrison, paraphrase a portion of the Tao Te Ching.
Then onto the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Stanford University, as described by Stewart Brand in his 1972 piece for Rolling Stone magazine, “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums.”
Work load plus baby care plus seeking a home plus preparation for an interview and a job talk: it’s a lot. What is our dream home? Pool? Garden? Zendō? A base from which to launch on walks and dérives? A place into which one grows as a family. Space for growth. As I said: it’s a lot. All the same, I leave time in the evening for a walk beneath the stars. What will this house of ours look like? Will we know it when we see it? I have a large collection of books and records. The organizational models proposed by hippie moderns were loose and spontaneous — experience a kind of free play amid minimal “scripting.” The “tool freaks,” however, featured in the pages of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, focused instead on “personal computing” and videogaming, programming scaled to the person. The neoliberal order instantiated by these technologies decollectivized the body politic, reducing users to “islands in the net,” connected only by media mail and money. The housing market seems a bit like a game one must play once encircled by the system, ensnared in its webs of debt. Time to watch or at least save for later a six-part BBC series based on Brand’s book How Buildings Learn. Unless time is a thing better spent reading and sleeping — and it is, it is. There is a house out there that is right for us. Let us wait and walk and see.
Breathe, relax, listen around. Ask into a phone, “Who are you, love?” and type, “Bless you!” Seek out “America Needs Indians,” the multimedia show that Stewart Brand performed at the 1966 San Francisco Trips Festival. The show placard for the festival lists “America Needs Indians” as the first part of a double bill on Friday January 21, the first night of the three-day festival. It describes the event as follows: “AMERICA NEEDS INDIANS — Sensorium 9. By Stewart Brand and Zach Stewart. 600 slides, 2 movies, 4 sound tracks, flowers, food, rock ‘n’ roll, Eagle Bone Whistle, Thunderstorm, live Cheyenne Tipi, Chippewas, Sioux, Blackfeet, Tlingit, Makah, Pomo and Miwuk, plus anthropologists.” If ever I happened upon a time machine, the Trips Festival is certainly among the events of the past I’d visit. Charles Perry describes the festival in his history of Haight-Ashbury — though he says no more about “America Needs Indians” than that it was “mournfully out of place in the rackety, echoing space of Longshoremen’s Hall.” Ben Van Meter shot footage at the festival, eventually releasing a short called S.F. Trips Festival, An Opening (1966). Look, too, for a feature film of his called Acid Mantra or Rebirth of a Nation (1968). Wheeler Winston Dixon discusses Van Meter in his book The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema.
I situate myself amid circles of relatives and kin. Friends and family shower Sarah, F. and I with gifts. Each day is lovely. I wish to give back, give thanks. How do I do that properly in light of settler-colonialism? What happens, too, when we view postal systems in that light? Let our view take into its account Thomas Pynchon’s approach to these matters — but also the idea of mail systems as prehistories of the Internet. Wasn’t the Pony Express an arm of the settler state? What happens when texts replace letters as units of exchange? How do we remove or subtract from these relations guns, money, and oil — the tools, in the Whole Earth sense, at the core of the settler toolkit? Whole Earth Catalog creator Stewart Brand produced a multimedia slide show which he performed called “America Needs Indians.” His wife at the time was a Chippewa woman named Lois Jennings. How did the commune movement that Brand and Jennings catered to with their Whole Earth Truck Store negotiate its relationship to the settler-colonialist project? Were they attempting an alliance with Native people, or did they think of themselves as cowboys, as in Ant Farm’s Cowboy Nomad Manifesto? For Ant Farm, though, the cowboy was distinct from the settler. The cowboy “carried all his life support systems with him being restricted by what his vehicle (horse) could carry.” Something of the same can be said for the hero of Ed Dorn’s poem Gunslinger. Missing from that figuration of the cowboy, however, is his relation to land. Does the cowboy’s migrancy, his refusal to settle down, absolve him of complicity with the settler-colonialist project? By “migrancy,” I mean his life “on the road,” as Kerouac put it — the latter’s Dean Moriarty character nothing if not a cowboy. Poet Gary Snyder described Moriarty as an embodiment of “the energy of the archetypal west, the energy of the frontier, still coming down. Cassady is the cowboy crashing” (as quoted in Ann Charters’s “Introduction” to On the Road, p. xxix). The hippie counterculture at its best, however, was more than just a collection of “cowboy nomads.” It fashioned itself into a Woodstock Nation, a coming together, a global village, a gathering of the tribes.
Tools remain for me things that make me a bit wary. They trouble categories. They implement will. When we use them (as, in our current state, we must), we invoke them, we grant them a daemonic energy. It’s like the story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice from Disney’s Fantasia. Marx envisioned something similar seventy years earlier with his famous image of the dancing table from the chapter on the commodity-form in Capital. Questions arise for me, then, any time I encounter “Access to Tools,” a saying that appears on covers of the Whole Earth Catalog. The script runs as follows: If capital’s mythic origin was a magical act, a medieval summoning of a Moloch-like entity, might magic have something to say about how to counteract that act so as to save the planet? Or is magic itself the problem, its alchemical experiments—its rituals, its instruments, its techniques—already in some sense a disruption of oikos, a breaking of cosmic rules, leading inevitably toward Solid State scientific manipulation of matter and consciousness? Were the Whole Earth Catalogs and the various other guidebooks of the 1960s and 1970s a bunch of counterculture spellbooks, part of an entheogenic revival of magic, and thus occult in their own right? I say, if we’re going to allow that the cosmos is magical, then let’s be dialectical about it. Let’s assume that we ourselves contain both active and passive roles. This is part of what was meant by the perennial teaching, “AS ABOVE, SO BELOW.” We, too, are made of stardust. Let’s assume, then, that we, too, are magical. That’s the sense, I think, in which Stewart Brand was right: “We are as gods, so we might as well get good at it.” This seems a far more optimistic and hopeful approach than the passive defeatism of the left-melancholic path. I’ve explored the latter path; the paralyzing guilt it induces can be just as dangerous, just as apocalyptic as the instrumentalism it shuns, amounting in practice to little more than a sad-faced laissez-faire shoulder-shrug. Wands, crystals, Tarot cards, spellbooks, all of the various anthropotechnic implements of magic as a Craft: these are to be tested through practice, in service of the Good.
The revolution grows micro, happens everywhere. Except everybody knows that everywhere is as good as nowhere. As we float in our plastic domes. Is neoliberalism birthed in the summer of ’69? What did Woodstock and the Moon Walk do to us? Did they remake us all as cybernetic astronauts, tethered as if by umbilical cord to an AI similar to the one that awakens and talks to us at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey? What accounts for the recurrence of “space” in so many of the texts of Hippie Modernism? Why, too, is this the moment of LSD and “Spacewar”? Did neoliberalism shoot us all into space? Where does acid figure in relation to this transformation? What effect did it have on the collective imaginary? Abbie Hoffman had his helment smashed, he says, (and by “helmet,” he meant his “subjective experience”), during a bad acid trip at Woodstock. (The book to consult for an account of Abbie’s trip is Ellen Sander’s Trips: Rock Life in the Sixties.) Even as he imagines the festival as a prefiguration of a new WOODSTOCK NATION, he also describes it as the first time in history that we successfully landed a man on the Earth. “Calling Planet Earth,” echoes June Tyson at the end of “Space is the Place.” Perhaps what we saw is that we’re all one thing, one brain, the General Intellect, a new infant floating out in space. What do we do with ourselves? Stewart Brand assumes that this condition makes us as gods, and that we might as well get good at it. But he does so while involved in a counterculturally-conducted investigation of communal living. The neoliberal cognitive map clicked into place in multiple minds at once there in the late 60s and early 70s. We’re all right there in that “Earthrise” photograph, our collective self-portrait. My hunch, however, is that this map is the veil that we need to pierce if we’re ever to get free.
All of those communes, those seedlings of joyful community: why did so few of them take root? Are there lessons to be found among the memories of these vanished experiments? Might we not organize to try something similar today using our own far more advanced technologies? What steps would it require? How might we organize ourselves into a cybernetic communal family? How about a crowd-funded reality experiment? Maybe the Revolution should be televised! By the end of Brand’s essay, Spacewar comes to operate as a grand metaphor. It’s no longer just the name of the first videogame; it’s a parable about cultural revolution, a metonym for real-time video- and computer-assisted reinvention of society through play. Brand also describes it as “a flawless crystal ball of things to come” (78). But what is this future state, this twenty-first century that the game ushered into being? Are we more empowered today or less? Unfortunately Brand was ultimately a libertarian, his optimistic views on the “heroism of engineering” roughly similar to the “heroism of enterprise” imagined by followers of right-libertarian philosopher Ayn Rand. In Brand’s scenario, individuals live and work “communally” in the sense of “side-by-side” or “physically proximate,” but their bodies and minds don’t do much together. Computers and screens and related kinds of machinery mediate our interactions, and capitalism as mode of production remains unchanged. Individuals feeding back but otherwise “doing their own thing” form a subconscious consensus, and a stable teapot reality — a one-world Oikos — locks into place around them.
Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place” leads me into the mirror-world. I drop down into a seat and scry. One of the oldest known forms of divination. Our social media empires have attempted to capture the worlds on the other sides of our scrying mirrors. This is what shows like Black Mirror have tried to teach us. Students and I have returned to head culture’s first encounters with electronic black mirrors in the budding early days of videogames and personal computers as reflected in “Spacewar: Fanatic Life and Symbolic Death Among the Computer Bums,” a report Stewart Brand wrote for Rolling Stone magazine in December 1972. The piece begins with the conviction that the world is windblown and that change, technological modernity — in a word, “computers” — all of these have been foisted on “the people,” regardless of whether or not “the people” are prepared for it. Within less than half a century following the piece’s publication, most of us would be clutching these objects like gods. Brand’s advice was, “We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” This is the meaning of his Whole Earth Catalog. The medium in that case was indeed the message. The Catalog is significant primarily in terms of its form. A functional blueprint for Revolution is one that provides “Access to Tools.” But why was Brand so nonchalant, I wonder, as all of this began to unfold? Why was he so nonchalant about the effects on neighborhoods IRL as heads began to spend their night-time moments “out of their bodies, computer-projected onto cathode ray tube display screens” (39)?
I sense a play of voices rising, entering into the realm of the heard. The voices I’m hearing this year are sounding increasingly heroic. Students leaning in, revolutionary, inspired. The preparation is at a very advanced stage: TSA unions grounding flights, teachers striking successfully in Los Angeles. Andrew Fluegelman sounds the call in his introduction to The New Games Book of 1976 where he announces to us today, “You can change the rules if you don’t like them. So long as you all agree on what’s fair, you can make the game into whatever you want it to be. Or you can invent a new one.” “All you need,” he adds, “are a few of your friends and the desire to celebrate the day with play. In New Games there are no spectators.” There will be no instant replays, brothers and sisters. The revolution, as Gil Scott-Heron promised, will be live. Whole Earth Catalog founder Stewart Brand participated in the New Games movement. As a head, Brand was committed to exploring new and more satisfying ways to live. As was fellow New Gamer George Leonard, for whom games signify “nothing less than our way of being in the world.” Brand staged the first New Games Tournament in October 1973, a public event held in a 2200-acre valley just north of the Golden Gate Bridge, “where people could create and share their games, and everyone could play” (10). Community organizer Pat Farrington was instrumental in planning the event. “Games are not so much a way to compare our abilities,” she believed, “as a way to celebrate them.”