Sunday, July 13, 2008

Happy Bucky Day

I have written about Buckminster Fuller before, a list of quotes and an allusion in a little essay I wrote here about faith.

The fact is, a book I read about him when I was in high school made a big impression on me. I wrote up a similar statement about faith, which I was thinking a lot about at the time, just out of Catholic school, to give to a teacher who had, in so many words, told me I was going to hell. In several conversations. Of course, I admired Buckminster Fuller as an engineer and an architect, and I liked his "ventilated prose" (he didn't believe that anything not written in verse should be called poetry.) But what stuck with me was his way of looking at the world as a bunch of patterns. So, in honor of his 113th birthday, I'm going to quote a long section from the book by Hugh Kenner that I read in high school.

"Suppose I have a rope here between my hands..." (Santa Barbara, December 1967, in a TV studio, under the lights, before twenty privileged people. A videotape is in progress for the University archives. He is supposing he has that rope.)

"...between my hands, and I have tied it in an ordinary overhand knot; one rotation of 360 degrees; a second rotation of 360 degrees, one of them passed through the other..."

(The hands whirl, shaping space. Through the new terminology we can see that knot. Tomorrow work with pencil, paper, and string will assure us that the terminology is accurate. One circle, 360 degrees; another circle, 360 degrees; the knot does consist of two circles and they do interlock. And twice 360 degrees is 720 degrees, a figure we shall meet again.)

"And when I pull the ends of the rope, the knot does not disappear. The knot gets tighter. Each loop prevents the other loop from disappearing. So the knot is a pattern in the rope, and it's a self-interfering pattern. The harder I pull, the more the knot stays there..."

It does indeed. Gesturing across his chest, he pulls that phantom knot till in empathy we seem to be pulling on it ourselves. He interrupts himself to remark that he has used this example before audiences many times, and no one has ever objected that there is no knot because there is not even a rope. Something important has already happened, what he calls a first-degree generalization, one step away from every special case. We have each of us, as we watch, a clear and distinct knot in the mind, understood as we may never have understood a knot before. As if by X-ray, we can see through it, think its structure. A knot in a rope would be a model of that mental knot, and a less than perfect model since we should not be able to see into it when it is pulled into a tight lump.

Now, he goes on, we might loosen the knot, and slip it along the rope. We are then slipping the rope through the knot: feeding the rope through a pattern. And if we have a nylon rope, a cotton rope, a Manila rope, all spliced together, these materials will pass indifferently through the knot, so we cannot say that the knot is Manila or nylon or cotton. The knot is a pattern, a "patterned integrity." And the knot isn't the rope. [...]

"... a self-interfering patterned integrity": and we are somewhere in the terrain commanded by Fuller's special jargon. This has gained him something of a reputation for being incomprehensible, as indeed he is if our habit with printed pages is to skim and dip.

Next we are told to imagine the great winds, molecules of air being sucked across the Pacific, and across the California coastline, and into this room, and into our lungs. And out again, after the oxygen exchange. (We have possibly just expelled some molecule that once passed through Julius Caesar.)

Sixty pounds of air each day cycles through each of us, and food passes through us, too, and water likewise. In a lifetime some hundred tons of solids, liquids, and gases will cycle through a man like rope passed through that knot. The man is not yesterday's steak or this moment's lungful or his most recent martini. The man is a self-interfering patterned integrity, like a knot.


The rope makes the knot visible. The food, the water, the air, make each of us visible, and audible, and heavy. They are not us. They are elements in a flow of patterned transactions, of service to the "phantom captain."

(And what is that steak, incidentally? A knot likewise, tied out of solar energy. Onto Spaceship Earth the light pours, and with it the invisible radiation which we do not perceive as light. Much of it is reflected back into space, for instance by the white clouds. But some is impounded by the green leaves of plants. They are green because we see them by the radiation they reject; they are impounding the red, the hot, and in such quantities that they require to be water-cooled -- if you deprive a plant of water, the leaves burn. They tie the solar energy into self-interfering patterns which cattle -- knots likewise -- transmute into protein we can transmute. We say that we eat steak. Really, we are acquiring knotted sun. We cannot deal with it directly -- except on a limited scale, by taking a sunbath -- but the plants can, and we eat plants, and eat animals that eat plants.)

A while ago he was halting, sentence by sentence. By now the cosmos of recycling patterns has taken possession of him. The voice is rapid, as though seeking means to utter many sentences at once, so doing the cosmos fit homage. The right hand, spread although gripping crystal sphere, is pulling in quanta of sunlight; before his chest, in tense, rapid movement, his fingers fashion intricate knots.

This passage in particular was among a few things I read at that time that led to me majoring in physics (to see how far I could get before I failed.) It also played an important role in forming what passes for my personal spirituality. No doubt it's because I was just the right age when I read it, but it's saying something about Bucky Fuller that he had the ability to inspire young people like that, even decades after his death.

1 comment:

cjfsyntropy said...


Great annotation of that Bucky passage on pattern integrity! There are others working to build on Bucky's vision. See the web site of the Synergetics Collaborative for reports on some past events. If you join the announcements mailing list, you might find one that you can attend. We hope to do something in Chicago when the "Starting with the Universe" retrospective goes there.

Thanks again for your thoughtful contribution.

CJ Fearnley
Executive Director
Synergetics Collaborative