The San Francisco Review of Books—Cover Story, 1974
by Jay Bail
There are certain writers whose thought is so important that it doesn't matter whether you agree with them or not. A verbal tension so powerful, an ascetic appetite so huge and consuming forces us both to accept the vision as a revelation and to resist it as a duty.
John Brockman's Afterwords (Anchor, $3.50) has recently been published. Composed of three separate works, two of which have appeared in somewhat altered form, Afterwords deserves to be read and experienced as few books do in these times of informational overload.
For John Brockman is the kind of writer you both agree with and don't agree with at all. Either way you must pay a pro-found attention to what he says in this remarkable book. In short, sharp strokes of words, he breaks through the very for-est of meaning by denying meaning, eschewing traditional forms of activities, thoughts and emotions. It is not what he says that is so valuable; it is his whole manner of negating what can be said. His words backtrack on themselves, stalk their own meanings, and thrash about in the underbrush of our sensibilities. There is a total devastation of language, isolating and withering the very hands our dreams are made of.
Artaud might stumble out of his frenzied asylum to shake the chaotic hand of Brockman. Wittgenstein might pause a moment, sit up from his numerous notebooks (ah so ah yes) into the square root of minus Afterwords. And even Dostoyevsky, poor scoundrel, lost in the wilderness of his vows, might honor Brockman by asking him for a small loan.
An incredible chaos of Brockman is the source of both agreement and disagreement. For if chaos exists, does this reality also exist? Brockman says no. If we agree that man, amid his words, thoughts, constructions is faceless, nameless, beingless, then shall we also accept purpose and drive and love? Brockman says no. If nothing but words exist, do we?
Brockman says no.
If nothing but words exist, do we?
Brockman says no.
Things. The tightrope of unimpeachable triviality.
Things. They caress and fondle, soothe and warm, and then finally burst into more things, more events, words, smiles, emotions, and handwavings. You can't lift a conception without things invading in hordes. And always the things make sense, there is a reason for their being, a purpose to their face. And yet...
Things. Their self-righteous inescapability—an illusion. Events, places, hands, words are knots of tenuous existence that, if untied will reveal nothing, a void , an is-ness. Do not believe what is in front of your mind—it is not real, nor is your mind. These bonds of love, those of envy, that of man, and this of child—all gone, lost in the whorl of happenstance. Man is dead, traditional gatherings of entity-patterns are dissolved , and the universe is not real. It simply is. Any description will deaden, delimit, decrease the actual existence. It simply is.
A half-century of art, caught in things. And more things. Covering like moss. A living theatre celebrating the arbitrary, the minutiae of taste. Novels avalanching over our certainties with the grime of inconsequentiality. Painting as a Great Reveler, the splash of liquid on canvas, the rampage of formlessness, the feast of the grotesque.
(A series of timeless tableaus, Brockman writes, an infinitely successive series of nows. But this can't be. It isn't. A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably. We are free from the pictures and the lives lived in the mind are at an end.)
To examine words minutely is to break the back of verbal meaning, destroying the moving form in a perfect ease of shattered bodies. To dissemble intellectually is to destroy the whole, to be lost among the fibers of organic isolation. Never forget the wholeness you started from, the values and constructions you dissected in the name of investiture. Always remember that a taking-apart implies a putting-together or else you will be lost in the high drift of chance.
There is no one writing like John Brockman. To agree with him is to realize his value in dissecting, destroying, revealing the certainty behind uncertainty behind certainty.
To disagree with Brockman is to still realize the value of demolition. For if there is nothingness, and if there is somethingness, then to realize the first is to resurrect the importance of the second. And in the last, the first was born; and at the first we shall discover the last.
(Replace all words pertaining to ownership with words concerning functions, operations ... Consciousness does not exist; indeed, there is no reason to believe that it ever did exist.)
(The perception of a signal happens 'now' but its impulse happened then. The present instant is the plane upon which the signals of all being are projected. This instant, the interval, constitutes all that is directly experienced ... The interpretation of the ordering of the brain takes place while new ordering is continually happening .. It is almost as though there were two parallel planes.)
There are two parallel planes that cut across differing reality levels. One (interpretation) has to do with continuity, cause-and-effect, time, space—and conscious will. The other (chaos) involves drift, abruptness, frozen shards of time—and arbitrary whim. The first entails a whole world of conceptualization and an endless range of possibilities. The second is eerie, hollow, frozen to a perpetual is-ness, utterly non-human. Yet from another standpoint, this chaos is the life-giver from which all possibilities flow, the infinite present, the undying atomic particles, the sound of one hand clapping.
Any phenomenon must be considered through the bifocalarity of both element and entity. To understand the significance of the whole entity without a knowledge of the elemental components is incomplete. Seeing the components without evaluating the characteristics of the entity to which they belong is likewise incomplete. One leads to a sterile consideration of values without any means of application or, indeed, a fitting knowledge of what events these values shall apply to. The other leads to utter randomness without any knowledge of meaning, or the means toward meaning—coherent intellect.
This randomness is what Brockman—and a good deal of western thought—considers as direct experience. But what does 'direct' mean? Why do we so willingly go out of our minds to come to our senses, presumably the seat of The Direct Experience? Why is that direct and thought not? Why should we see the interpretive capability of the mind considered as a block to Reality, a filter through which only part of The Truth seeps in? A Direct Experience means beyond doubt, means certain; while something discovered through rationality is considered imperfect, uncertain. Therefore, what is certain and perfect must be true because we do not doubt it. Truth then becomes the certainty of convenience, the inability to doubt.
And since to doubt implies falseness, anything capable of doubt must be incomplete and false. The mind only is capable of doubt, and man's distinguishing humanistic characteristic is his mind; therefore, man is false, dead, a cardboard sign in a vacant lot.
And so, to know through intelligence becomes a knowing through falseness. To know through not-intelligence becomes true. 'Directly experienced' means not open to question, a tyranny of truth, an incommunicable sameness.
The faith of the gods rests on their inability to speak. Their holiness springs from a fountain of matchless stupidity.
(The difference between human experience and neural experience is the difference between illusion and reality, between choice and no choice ... The ordering and arrangement are a continual functional happening. The ordering and arrangement are all happening. The ordering and arranging are all that is actually happening. Nothing else ever happens.)
(Navigate through reality with no pretense of knowledge. The unity is methodological. The unity is in the activity and will not lead to any final answer. It is a path. All paths are the same; they lead nowhere. Keep moving ... Not sex, not unconscious urges, not iconic archetypes, not metaphysics. There is no purpose. There are no goals.)
There are no goals. If you say so. If you wait for the Godot of your values, if purpose must somehow invade you with the certainty of its presence—then nothing will happen. For there is nothing but a swarm of neuron happenings, intervals, methodological patterns. Brockman is totally correct throughout. There is no purpose.
But why not make some purpose? Life does not exist in the body of a tortured god but in the hands of your own will to elaborate. There are no goals except the sense of your own crucifixion towards.
(What must be analyzed is the process, the operant concept of what something is doing, rather than static, fixed states of being. ... The information that was received without consent or awareness. The notion of free man, the notion of individual choice, is no longer valid.)
Realization of chaos calls forth varying attitudes to life, based on three fundamental premises: (I) the reality of only drift; (2) the reality of only purpose; (3) the reality of both drift and purpose.
Challenge lies in overcoming the impossible, riding the daylight down. If it is true that man is simply a product of physiological functioning, organic patterns of entity, and that there is no free choice—then he ought to attempt to create some, to write on water. To do, in whatever realm of being, is precisely the challenge because it is impossible. For truth is the challenge of the impossible as well as the inertia of the probable. Which step you take—towards the impossible or into the probable—is the measure of one's thrust to life. The first is always, the other is the never-having-been. The first is never being because it is about to become. The other is never being because it has always been. One is the future, the other the past. Hence, is-ness, neural experience becomes the present, mindless, blurred widow of chance.
It is impossible to be conscious without an attempt to kill the sky.
(There is no continuity, no accretion, no incremental serial advances, no depth. There is no nature. There was never anyone but me talking to me of me. No nature: just a nature created in what it says.)
Words are simply one stage of a single line of development within a vast urge to elaboration—(which includes other lines, such as vision, taste, touch). This urge drives right through words to merge into concepts and systems of conceptualizations. These systems are as different from individual words as a human being is from an individual cell. To refer to the human being as nothing but cells—and thereby dismiss consciousness—is to miss a vast complexity that is particularly human. To choose to ignore systems of conceptualization, as Brockman does, and to consider individual words alone as true, as Brockman does, is not to accommodate the different and quite unique entity that is a system of conceptualization. It is to avoid a complexity so vast that it has become a simple, new organism, unifying its properties to deal with the range of its increased potentiality.
Systems of conceptualization have a validity of their own. They do not depend totally on words. While they may cease to exist if all words should stop, it is equally true that when concepts stop, all words will also come to an end. For words that are not part of something are part of nothing, and words that are part of nothing become nothing themselves.
Both words and systems of conceptualization are real and both are vital. To deny one is, in essence, to deny the other. You cannot ignore rungs without changing a ladder into mere pieces of wood. You cannot take cells or words and say that they are truer than humans or systems of conceptualization. They are neither truer nor falser. They are the same as. Both are simply one stage in an irresistible hurtle toward complexity. But the other stages could not exist without it and it could not exist without the other stages.
(The author presents not ideas, but information. Not words and images, but a transaction that can be measured only in terms of information ... It is a question of searching for questions. It is an attempt to create a working model, not with an eye to truth but to convenience. The only rules applicable are those that are convenient to use. We move toward an always inferred, unknowable reality.)
(Experience a minute. Experience an hour. Can you experience a minute and an hour together, simultaneously, at the same time? This is an important question to ask.)
And the void is a concept, just as something is a concept. There is no reality but reality.
(The universe is finite: there is nothing beyond, nothing outside this finiteness. Just the next measurement, the next word.)
We create with words but we cannot uncreate through words. For there is no uncreation. There is no void. There is only continuous existence at different pitches of necessity. It is impossible to stop being. We cannot be certain that we were ever not or will be not since all our conceptualization of not are symbols of systems of purposive relationships. That they may refer by a congruence of functionality to an empirical fact is simply another system of purposive relationship. All that we can be sure of is that we are a maze of purposive relationships in a mirror of symbols.
It is impossible to die or be born since we are alive and to image the piles of increments (or the lack of them) that we refer to as birth (or death) is simply another purposive relationship within a mirror of symbols.
If death is the end of all, including purposive relationships, it is impossible to understand this within the ceaseless purpose of relationships. If death entails another reality level, it is impossible to understand this since we cannot take into account the variable functions of this vastly pitched system of purposive elaboration. We cannot know death because (a) it is nothing, or (b) it is every thing.
(Finite man, finite intelligence: control. Not in control, but as control, as reality, as intelligence. Finite intelligence: the mass is no greater than the singular man of the mass. Expect no life from the mass. Expect no voice from the people.)
(No sign of life but life, itself, the presence of the intelligible in that which is created as its symbol. Life is a knowledge, not an existence. Life is not lived, it is known, Known: not experi-enced. Imagine, you had an experience.)
Brockman is hardly a discursive writer. He does not reason from a premise to a conclusion but rather starts with a conclusion (the utter reality of words) and topples backward to several premises that may fit. Nor is the what, the content of his books of that much importance.
Brockman's value is nothing less than a violent incursion against meaning and, ultimately, against the whole concept of human. He pierces you with the sharpness of his abstentions to conjoin. As in a play or a novel, he does not tell you but shows you. He shows you by breaking all conceptual patterns. Short sentences butchered of a possible fullness of verbs, adverbs and adjectives. Disjunctive sentences falling over one another in a totalitarian isolation. Short paragraphs and chapters that chop off any attempt to expound, extrapolate, explain, excuse. There is no one writing like John Brockman because Brockman writes with the total brutality of an executioner who shows you how to make peace before he hangs your participles. And you make peace, you come to rest in the flux of words through a sophisticated ignorance, a purposeful amnesia of meaning. You must follow Brockman down all the blind alleys to understand and to experience the totality of negation.
Brockman is important because, while you do not fully agree with him, he has force-fed you the chaos of the particle. And the man who has been in the depths of the particle comes to the surface of meaning fresh, with the knowledge of the workability of life, with an abundance of chaos lived. And he will know the relative and utter necessity of being human.
For the chaos of the word exists always, while the meaning of the word is always new. Both are profound truths that together form the blood and the skin of this incredible wash of life.
Afterwords to John Brockman's Afterwords should best be written by John Brockman. In fact, he wrote it. It is Afterwords. They are put into 292 propositions to be found on pages paginated correspondingly. He who holds paginated blank pages against my counting them as propositions still travels in the semantic universe of forewords. Forewords are propositions which are designed to do some other words: those which follow. Afterwords undo themselves, including their precursors. Post-Wittgensteinean epistomologists first wrestled with, and are now slowly beginning to understand, the last proposition (No. 7) of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico Philosophicus: "Of which we cannot speak we have to remain silent". Brockman understands. Afterwords silence themselves. His last proposition (No. 292) is: "Nobody knows, and you can't find out".
OK. If this is so, why bother? Because Afterwords takes the mystery of language and puts it right back into its own mystery; that is, Afterwords ex-plains the mystery of language by taking language out ("ex-") of the plane of its mystery, so as to become visible to all before it slips back in to its plane. This in itself is a remarkable achievement that has been denied to almost all linguists, for they stick to the description of the plane without seeing that it is the plane that holds their descriptions.
Consider the proposition "There is food at 200 yards due east." This is a declarative sentence with a qualifying clause in English which when translated, for instance, into Bee will be easily understood by bees. Consider now the proposition "This is a declarative sentence with a qualifying clause." This is a proposition upon a proposition in a language that speaks about language. Call this a "second-order language", or "meta-language" or short. Propositions in meta-language cannot be translated into Bee.
The topology of a nervous system that understands and speaks meta-language must close on itself in a particular way. The bees don't have it. It is doubtful whether metalinguistic propositions can be made in any other animal language but Homo. Be this as it may, the blessed curse of a meta-language is that it wears the cloth of a first-order language, an "object language". Thus any proposition carries with it the tantalizing ambiguity: Was it made in meta- or in object-language? Nobody knows, and you can't find out. All attempts to speak about a meta-language, that is, to speak in meta-metalanguage, are doomed to fail, as Wittgenstein observed: "Remain silent!"
Brockman undooms the doom by an existential undoing of what was left undone. "Existential," for any Beginning is not to follow; that is, to begin is first to undo; then one has to undo the beginning in order to begin, and so on.
Intrigued, one follows the construction of Brockman's formidable machinery for doing the undoing, whose cogwheels, levers, pegs, interlocks, springs, etc., are anatomy, anthropology, architecture, astrophysics, biology, cybernetics, epistemology, heuristics, iconography, linguistics, logic, magic, metaphysics, neurophysiology, neuropsychiatry, philosophy, physics, physiology, poetry, proxemics, psychology, quantum mechanics, relativity, zoology, etc. to name a few.
All who are concerned about the violence committed in the name of language will appreciate the useful uselessness of Brockman's un-book.
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.
John Brockman's three books are not as incomprehensible as they might initially seem; indeed they are at base quite simple.
The first takes information theory—the mathematical theory of communications—as a model for regarding all human experience.
The second is a print portrait of Heisenberg's theory of indeterminacy.
The third investigates the limits of words as tools for understanding.
What distinguishes this trilogy is not their informing hypotheses, which are familiar to various degrees, but the author's unfettered exploration of their implications.
I also admire enormously their style and structure, as well as their remarkable capacity to implant themselves in the reader's mind.
by Hugh Fox
Harriet Daimler in The Organization (New York, 1971) invents a number of words that are particularly apt to any study of John Brockman:
1. Phantiverse—The fantasy-universe in which most of the world lives, consisting of the "old" words/concepts to live by: mother, father, family, love, hate, will, patriotism.
2. Realomyth—The entire "content" of l....in all its ramifications and complexities.
3. Defactification—Getting rid of 1 and 2 and replacing it (subfuging) with 4.
4. The Subliminal—The de-fantisized "real" world.
Brockman's psychology, ontology, sociology, metaphysics and neurology—they're all in Afterwords—are about what Harriet Daimlier would call "The Subliminal World". He really doesn't concern himself with the "Phantiverse" at all, doesn't "straddle" the Mode and Post-Modern, but begins to define from INSIDE THE POST-MODERN PARAMETERS.
Perhaps the beginning of his vision is neurology/cybernetics, the recognition that the Brain, under its historical identity-layers of Religion, Patriotism, Love, Science, Honor, etc. is an automatic information-machine. The Judeo-Christian "aura" that we have secreted about the "Human Being" has nothing at all to do with the fact that Man is an Aqueous Machine, that he is limited to what his nervous system itself can do and like all other machines he operates, not on the edge of a metaphysical infinite, but within the confines of definable neurological capabilities:
We are beyond space and time; we are beyond good and evil. There is only information. It is the control, the measure by which the operation of the brain changes. There is always complete control. (Page 55)
The brain is a terminal machine in the process that is itself the dynamic, the reference point. The reference point is not to be found as a substantial basis, but in consideration of function and operations. It will be found in the process of transmission of neural pattern. It is through observation of operations, measurement of information, that this dynamic situation can be dealt with. Observation and measurement, not classification and categorization. (Page 73)
Afterwords is literally a book after words. Words represent the major wall between Man and Reality. Reality is "out there," but between Man and Out There there is a whole pseudo-world (phantiverse) of words/concepts that blocks any possible under standing of the Out There in itself. We exist in a "finite world of words," (Page 221) but the world Out There is "unintelligible... we feel the absurdity of an order, a whole, a knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous, within its vital boundary, in the mind." (Page 227)
The best, the most we can do is get out of our minds/words/ concepts and immerse ourselves as thoroughly as possible in the Pure Out There: "Crashing through the personal psychic walls. I am out of my mind ... the lives lived in the mind are at an end. They never were." (p. 243) Only after we do divest ourselves of our historical, religious, cultural LOAD, after we confront the fact that all our glorious concepts and goals are little wet cellular transactions, that that's all we are is the Neurological Machine, Brockman does not offer us any kind of salvation. All he offers, in fact, is a liberation into confusion, uncertainty, enigma, obfuscation. He is not a Witness to a new Religion of the Freed Mind, but rather a cicerone who conducts his sightseers into EMPTINESS. Beyond is merely more beyond:
Man is dead: the great explainer, the great explanation. He has lost the center: he was the center, the whole in which he was contained. There can be no more explanations, no more worlds. (Page 263)
Nobody knows, and you can't find out. (Page 292)
We get rid of our usual way of thinking about our brain and senses. There aren't any "pictures" or "feelings" or "smells" in our brain—our total reality-perception is based on receptor mechanisms, limited, controlled, determined by the nature and range of the receptors. Which eliminates the validity of the World in our Head compared to the World Around us. This is the Perception-Destruct Mechanism. Stage one. In Stage two, Brockman eliminates our Word-World, the comfortable retreat into Abstractions that give us direction and meaning. So we toss them out too. We become wordless neurological Things. We try to merge into raw reality ... but we can't... and that's where Brockman leaves us hanging.
Afterwords assimilates and uses the writings by authors like Whitehead, Kubler, Whorf, Niels Bohr, Rene Dubos, Carlos Castenadas, Heisenberg, Sir James Jeans, Wittgenstein, Buckminster Fuller, Eddington, Bertrand Russell, T.E. Hulme and T.S. Eliot.
At the same time the message is a kind of massive, corporate summing up of the Head Mystique of the 1960's. I remember toward the end of the 60's attending a Leary Light-Show/Guru Pitch at the Santa Monica auditorium that essentially was about losing the Ego in the Cosmos, getting rid of our "normally"/traditionally conditioned senses and language-usage and supra-sensorily, passing the senses, finding self in the genetic-cosmic pool inside us, wordlessly merging with Reality IN ITSELF. It was Heidegger's Being in Time turned into an Operational Reality.
This was the Haight-Ashbury Message, the Berkeley Message of Charlie Potts, J.O. Simon, Richard Krech ... it was the reality I lived between 1960-1970: I was a Cosmic Zero, whatever I'd been trained to believe was "out there" wasn't out there. In order to even approach the Out There I had to discard my whole trained, dyedin-occidental-dead-head civilization Past.
So Brockman's message is the Hippy Message, the real Hippy Message that fastened on American (and East) Indian Shamanism, Peyote Visions, Behavior-unconditioning Light Shows and Pot, anything to destroy the Judeo-Christian-Scientific-Industrial-Perception-Cage ... only it's also the message of the Scientific Philosophical-Psychological Community of Seers. Why this congruence?
A short quote from Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation (completed in 731). Subject --the conversion of pagan, Anglo-Saxon England to Christianity. One of King Edwin's councilors is talking to the King:
Such appears to me, King, this present life of man on earth in comparison with the time which is unknown to us, as though you were sitting at the banquet with your leaders and thanes in winter and the fire was lighted and your hall warmed, and it rained and snowed and stormed outside; and there should come a sparrow and quickly fly through the house, come in through one door and go out through the other. Now in the time that he is inside he is not touched by the storm of winter; but that is only the twinkling of an eye and the least interval, and at once he comes from winter back to winter again. So this life of men appears save for but a little while; what goes before or what follows after we do not know. Therefore, if this teaching should bring anything more certain and more proper, it is fitting that we follow it.
Christianity introduces Graeco-Roman Rationalism into the Shamanistic tribal magic of the Anglo-Saxon world. The herbal, witchcrafting, rune and rhyme spook-world of the Pagan is systematized into an Aristotelean-Platonic-Dying God system which takes the Greek First Cause and turns it into God the Father, takes the Neo-Platonic "oversoul" and creates a Son and Holy Spirit.
It is non-proven except in a METAPHYSICAL sense ... and it continues on almost a thousand years. Man in the Unperceivable Unknown (the "primitive," Hippy and Brockman view) becomes Man in the Unperceivable Known.
The Cartesian-Baconian Revolution (we are now in the early 1600's almost a thousand years after Bede) was the beginning of a clean sweeping out of "Mind-ldols," a discarding of the Medieval Unperceivable Known and attempt to substitute in its place a Perceivable Known. This attempt to create a Perceivable Known Rationale is the beginning of the Age of Reason, the Rise of Modern Science, Nationalism, Capitalism, the Rights of Man, etc... and it deflates and is abandoned at the beginning of the Twentieth century when we turn back to the pagan Anglo-Saxon Charm World again. The multiple "isms" that arise in Europe at the end of the Nineteenth century are basically first an attempt to get rid of the Abstract System of Judea-Christianity not merely in its religious but also in its secular world view (Gauguin, Van Gogh, Maurice Denis, Redan, etc.), then once out of this Abstractionism an attempt to explore Inner Man (Matisse, Henri Rousseau, Nolde, Kandinsky, Kokoschka), then an attempt to twist External Reality into a kind of Neo-Abstractionism, a secularized post-Christian religion of Pure Order and Form (Max Jacob, Picasso, Metzinger, Braque), an attempt to let the Magic Self take over (Breton, Dali, de Chirico)... with Dada in a sense pointing the way toward the Dominant Future, the future of Leary—and Brockman.
As Kurt Schwitters says in Merz (1921):
We are often told that we are incoherent, but into the word people try to put an insult that is rather hard for me to fathom. Everything is incoherent ... The acts of life have no beginning or end. Everything happens in a completely idiotic way ...
When Schwitters talks about Dada being a "disgust with the magnificence of philosophers who for 3000 years have been explaining everything to us ..." he is ignoring the Anglo-Saxon Magic Interlude and attacking the Greek-Roman-Christianized-Judaic tradition that in a very real sense started in Greece as a reaction against the Greek Mystery Religions.
The Brockman World-View is a scientific, post-Modern judgment that Man the Unknown is in an Unknown World. There isn't even magic. In the Brockman world there is only Man the Limited Perceiver "lost" in a cosmos of Limited Perceivability.
Brockman's Afterwords is the first comprehensive post-modern Primer, the only book to date which extends a guiding hand back through Modernism to the Pre-Modern where most "intellectuals" still live. Afterwords represents a practical mode of updating into the NOW. It is a book for meditation, carrying back into the cloisters and chewing on them until the cloisters themselves disappear.
by Bern Porter
Techniques for changing direction, quantity, dimension; for impinging, bombarding, scattering; for diffusing, projecting, condensing; for counting, sorting, identifying; for recording, remembering, retrieving are exemplary of the manifold techniques making possible ultra technological achievements: nuclear fission, plasma containment, space flight. With every advance of the basic formulas in all the branches of the sciences the creators approach the gaping abyss; the thin division separating them from total annihilation on one side and the world's greatest, most permanent culture on the other.
In the dividing plane space resides undisturbed the highest of all accomplishments, the word.
And between the words, lies the ultimate enigma, meaning.
Wherein and whereby must the membrane separating us from the last imponderable be pushed back, be pierced; be surmounted, passed over, circumvented, made permanently open? By what password, what magic key, what procedure?
Sadly the methodologies are unavailable. ("Nobody knows, and you can't find out," says Brockman in the very last line of his Afterwords.)
Such admonishments as "except ye become as little children," "resort all my brethern to blind faith," "accept the truth and it will set you free" recede into the background as mere earwash while the cohorts of science pound impenetrable walls. "When I push an indentation here," complains Einstein, "a bulge appears over there."
The Brockman route holds promise.
I first encountered it as wall paper, as a decorative motif, a vertical sheathing blanket, pages overlapped like shingles to keep the cold out, the heat in. Carefully printed sheets of book paper, complete pages rent from their binding (80% of the first editions of By The Late John Brockman, 1969 and 37, 1970 were remaindered) contained on their collective surfaces a potential blueprint for the way out, over and into.
Interestingly, close examination of their revised form in the single, September 7, 1973 publication shows a complete synthesis involving 277 references, 56 authors, 6 especially selected books, the whole equating 27,000,000 words spanning 200 years of living and thought. This third level of interpretation could only be made possible by the 50,000,000 borrowed words at the supporting second stage, while the first generation, the beginning of it all, would equate to 80,000,000 words and 2000 years.
And none of it yet subjected to the fullest, or even the remotest kinds of scientific research cited in our opening paragraph for say the development of a transistor.
Under such a mountainous array, between which words, even what words, lies meaning? Or are they all worthless? 157,000,000 of them?
Brockman affirms they are.
And in that event, it's the fissures, the spaces between words, the blank spots between meanings that matter.
Are not we physicists still bombarding the spaces between the subdivisions of identifiable matter with gigantic electron accelerators? Hoping to get through?
Brockman, alone on the other side, in that quiet there, quiet because he is the only one there, can hope the rest of us may yet make it.
I am writing this on the way from London to Newcastle-on-Tyne. The train has an automatic voice system, and somehow the signals have gotten mixed up. Stops are announced that are non-existent, and we pull up at anonymous stations. The London Times for the day carries such headlines as "Lights go out as emergency powers bite," "Three weeks needed to start petrol rationing," "Floodlights off," "Fuel cut order," "Ambulance ban," and "Halt London' call." The last reads, in full: "A combined pay strike to halt London's entire public transport system- Tube trains, buses, and commuter trains—was urged yesterday by the London district council of the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen. Details, page 2." All of these items refer to the Capital itself. The paper is a blur of other items—the Mideast crisis, Watergate, etc. etc. All of this in the form of cries, unsteady words, anonymous journalism.
John Brockman's work is the newspaper of consciousness. It is frankly, enormously important on a number of different levels. I shall try to make some of these clear in this article.
Just as "public" statements become anonymous grist for newspapers, various isolated ideas become the core of Brockman's work. These ideas are often lifted bodily from other writers; there is a complete and necessary negation of the concept of ownership. The information of the world is sifted, and a certain essence shaped by Brockman; the result is a book, Brockman's own.
The essence is verbal, neural, occasionally logical. The world is words, the world does not exist. We are on a plane of neural movements and moments. Only occasionally does something else come through, something in fact reminiscent of Wittgenstein's pronouncements at the end of his Tractatus. Towards the end of the third section, Brockman writes: "I can't think of one anymore. This or that: I can't differentiate anymore. I don't believe it: I can't think, I must not try to think, simply utter. Saying makes it so. This, this and that: I shall have to banish them in the end, the beings, shapes sounds, and lights which with my haste to speak have encumbered this place." The words are Brockman's and Beckett's, and, of course, they are ours.
Words cover the contemporary world. More than that, they are generally systematized. The Americans pride themselves on their logic. We all know that this has resulted in an abstract vocabulary, containing words such as "defoliation" which are applied, but hardly applicable, to human problems. Now a system is generally governed by clear-cut rules; it contains elements, and transformations between them. Certain things are defined as elements, and certain things are defined as not-elements. The logic generally employed is classical, two-valued. Further, time may enter the notion of a system; we can create a "time-slice" and specify its state at any particular instant.
All well and good—until such thinking is applied to the "real world." A great deal of the present difficulty in London is due to an elimination of overtime work by the miners. This is going to create a serious fuel shortage, compounded by the Middle East oil situation. The shortage may result in a complete London blackout. On the other hand, the miners are among the poorest paid workers in Britain, doing one of the most difficult jobs. An unheard-of 500 miners are leaving the pits each week, for good. And there are only a quarter of a million of them in Britain. I could go on and on—the point is that any sort of "system" is going to break down here. The rules are changing constantly, there is no "true" or "false", no "right" or "wrong". Further, and perhaps most important, we cannot create a "time-slice" of "facts" for any given moment. Both personal and public communications channels are already overloaded, the situation is in flux, etc.
Here, for this writer, is the importance of Brockman's work. It negates systems, takes a tough stand: "The world is made up, not made. The world is created, and created things can no longer be considered as intermediaries leading to an infinity of other things. They are dead: they are their own fictions, begin and end in themselves, live and die in themselves. Created things are dead. The life you live is a lie. The world you inhabit is a lie. There is no need for fiction in the world: the world is the only fiction."
The book conforms to its own position: It moves in various directions, seemingly at once, hammering home things that are occasionally given the status of slogan: "Man is dead." "No man's land." "Our knowledge has proven one thing: nothing." "Disposable world." "Reject world." "Nobody knows, and you can't find out." (Take this last in relation to any news story.) The pages can be no, that's not true, only some of them can. The cross-linkages are there, and mysterious.
At times the prose appears to be without any author altogether; even when he appears, he is a shadow. His negations move beyond philosophy; they attack the notion of communication itself: "No man is my friend. I have no interest in the human condition. No interest in you, your ideas, your words. No interest in your opinions...Don't believe it. Don't believe anything I say. There's nothing to say. I have nothing to say. There's nothing to think about." The facileness of the writing hides its complexity. The logical and semantic structure, for example, of "Don't believe anything I say. There's nothing to say." is extraordinarily complex. It is similar to the old paradox contained in such statements as "All Cretans are liars. I am a Cretan." But, more than that—if the latter sentence is true ("There's nothing to say."), then the former is meaningless...(Creating an extended metaphor, we could write "Brockman is a miner of words, refusing to work overtime." As such, his activity mirrors our world; the distortions of language above contain as much "meaning" as the current situation in Britain. But, just as the current situation vitally affects and challenges the "average" Londoner, so does Brockman's work attack intellectualizations. By observing them, by refusing to participate in them, Brockman reveals their ambiguity, their instability.)
To conclude—the book bothers me. The first section is one of the strongest challenges to existentialist and phenomenological attitudes that I have ever read. It veers between pain and pronouncement—the author's and our own. We are in this together. We are involved in a strange sort of surrender, for we are using the same forms of communication that are being nihilated. I'm not even sure who "we" refers to here, nor, at least according to "Brockman," who "I" am. Or, in "fact" "who" "I" "am". It has to be let, at that, and isn't as simple as it sounds.
I first came across the work of John Brockman because I was attracted to the title, By The Late John Brockman, and to the severe brown wrappers which cover both of his hardcover books (now re-published in paperback as Part I and Part II of Afterwords, along with new work as Part III). The first sentence of By The Late John Brockman is the statement: "Man is dead." I couldn't allow such a sweeping statement to pass: who was this Brockman, 1941-1969? Finally I had to read his books, if for no other reason than to test his presumptuousness. After reading his work I almost regret my curiosity; it has pulled me, kicking and screaming, into a new way of viewing my dead world. No one likes to be bothered that mightily by a contemporary. Nevertheless, here I am with a newly cleared head-as after a major illness- and a new set of names for everything. But where to begin to discuss what Brockman says cannot be discussed?
Everything is as it seems/There are no questions to be answered after all/Curiosity is the other side of silence/Each sign means what it says/ How it strikes you, not what is meant/Symbols are the coins we clank when we have nothing to say/Literature is a cork-lined room to retire to/Its strictures are the diaries of old maids/Disappear into the clock face/Vanish into the present/Saying makes it so/Everything is as it seems.
Like many writers I've always had what can only be termed a blind instinct for the given, and a distrust of symbols. Like a child, the factuality, or in Brockman's words, the "is-ness" always seemed more interesting than the meanings It accrues. Just as interesting are the names we give to experience. Brockman challenges me to give a name to him, to his work, and I suppose that is the real function of any review: to name what the writer is doing, however ignorantly; to make a scratch on the glass distinct enough to interest others.
To begin with, many of Brockman's words are not his own. He is dictated to, and transcribes what he received, like a child of his age hearing the words of "masters" through a receiver which by its very technology transforms past wisdom into mathematical codes we are just beginning to learn how to read. Artaud, Niels Bohr, John Cage, Marshall McLuhan, Don Juan, Rene Dubos, Loren Eiseley, Buckminster Fuller, Jung, Whitehead, Norbert Wiener, Einstein, William Empson, Heisenberg, Wittgenstein, Wallace Stevens, Paul Valery, Robbe-Grillet: these are the voices of John Brockman. Brockman often seems like a crystal set on another planet, vaguely resembling ours, receiving isolated and warped messages long after its human operators are dead. Which means simply that Brockman is barely able to keep pace with the exploding present, and rather than being difficult to comprehend, "terrifying," or "futuristic gibberish," as other reviewers have averred, what he is saying seems obvious, once some basic propositions are understood.
Part I of Afterwords, put as "rationally" as possible, and thus falsified, is an attempt to demonstrate the singular importance of the brain as sole receiver of direct, immediate experience. "Consciousness, feelings, emotions, mind, ego, spirit, soul, pain, etc., words resulting from centuries of belief, and no longer useful.... Man is an abstraction. Human abstractions are based on the past, not on operant considerations of what is happening ..."Brockman's concern is with what is happening right now. Consider the possibilities of technology, and you will begin to grasp his meaning. "The activity of which man could never be aware, the direct experience of the brain. Man is dead. Men never existed at all. Our awareness as experience is past experience. Dreaming ... All that is real can be found in the operations of the brain ... Causality and sequence are myths. Sequence is simultaneity!" The "meaning" of the title (By The Late John Brockman) is simply that Brockman cannot exist in a book printed even five minutes ago.
Part II goes beyond the simple negative statement of Part I that nothing exists beyond what the brain immediately is bombarded with, to negate all that we have previously assumed: history, philosophy, the generalizations of previous epochs. The one shows us what is actually going on, 'and the other clears the attic of all the scrapbooks of the past. "We must not assume the existence of any entity until we are compelled to do so." Brockman is talking about the negation of history, of the weight of assumption. "Any absolute statement relating to properties of the world around us must be considered as an unjustified extrapolation. Only a description based on observations and relative to the process of observation can be valid ... Facts smirk."
Part II is the large end of the telescope considering the three books he has written. In it he is most expansive in his discussion of names and meaning. I consider it his most accessible and exciting work. He is too far ahead of McLuhan to be compared with him, but I think that in due time his work will find an audience of similar dimensions. But perhaps a paragraph like the following might frighten the book-oriented: "Words do not signify anything but their own reality. Words do not create the universe out of nothing but out of all. All possibilities exist in any: the whole story from Genesis to Apocalypse in any event; in any metamorphoses." And after he has said that, he adds: "Don't believe it. Don't believe anything I say. There's nothing to say. I have nothing to say. There's nothing to think about." Or: thinking makes it so. Part III simply negates a wider area than the previous two works.
Only in the course of thinking -immediately as I write—about Brockman's work has a "name" for him as a writer of these books occurred to me. He is fact's razor, cutting away everything—everything—knowledge, meaning, emotion, that we have let grow around us to keep out the cold of nothingness. If he follows his own lines, there is nothing left for him to say, but like Beckett, I suppose he will go on writing. Ideally, as in Zen, his ideas would be demonstrated, but unspoken. It won't be difficult for future critics to find his weak spots- the attention-getting anger, the simplistic generalizations which sometimes dominate a page—but I doubt that anyone who reads him with understanding will be able to escape his thinking.